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College property considered for 5-MW solar farm

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College is working on a land lease agreement with a Burlington company to install a 5-megawatt solar farm on a site off South Street Extension in Middlebury.
The college would purchase electricity generated by the facility to help meet its goal of transitioning to 100-percent renewable energy sources (not derived from fossil fuels) to power and heat the institution’s main campus by 2028.
The college’s board of trustees recently voted in favor of pursuing a land lease with Encore Renewable Energy, which will apply for the necessary permits through the Vermont Public Utilities Commission to make the South Street Extension facility a reality.
“This is at the beginning stages, which would include finalizing the site location,” said David Provost, Middlebury College’s treasurer and executive vice president for finance and administration.
The proposed South Street Extension solar farm is in keeping with the college’s recently announced “Energy 2028” initiative, an effort by the institution to completely heat and power its central campus using renewable energy within the next nine years.
Energy 2028 is built on four primary commitments, according to Provost:
•Transitioning to 100-percent renewable energy sources to power and heat the main campus. The college is building a portfolio of local projects that would include the new solar farm and an already approved anaerobic digester at Salisbury’s Goodrich Farm that will convert food waste and cow manure into natural gas that will be piped to the school.
The college already has an on-campus biomass-gasification plant that co-generates 15-20 percent of the institution’s electricity needs.
•Reducing energy consumption at its core campus by 25 percent by 2028. The college plans to do this, in part, by making several of its larger buildings more energy efficient, while encouraging the college community to conserve energy.
•Expanding educational opportunities for students to make a direct impact on the college’s renewable energy priorities.
•Reducing fossil fuel investments currently reflected in the college’s endowment fund. That commitment will begin this summer, when the college’s investment manager has been instructed to “not directly invest any new dollars on Middlebury’s behalf” in fossil fuel interests.
The Energy 2028 effort is in part driven by the upcoming expiration of renewable energy credits the college is receiving from approximately 2,100 acres of conserved land in and around the institution’s Bread Load campus in Ripton. Those credits helped the college campus achieve carbon-neutral status in 2016, and officials want to maintain that environmental distinction.
“Energy 2028 was Middlebury’s response to what comes after achieving carbon neutrality,” Provost said. “We achieved carbon neutrality in 2016, primarily driven by credits from the Bread Loaf forest, which will expire in the 2024-2025 timeframe. So we always knew there would have to be some new solutions.”
The South Street Extension solar farm is one of those potential solutions.
As currently imagined, the solar farm would encompass 30 acres of college land, now planted with a corn crop.
The property isn’t ideal for farming, according to Provost, who said it is infused with rock and ledge.
“We’ve explored seven or eight potential sites, and this is (Encore’s) and our preference, given the proximity to campus, the fact it’s college-owned land, and the current use of this land where it’s sited right now is not great farmland.”
Provost said he’s unsure at this point of the number of solar panels and their dimensions, but he said the solar farm would take up around 30 acres. The college is receptive to having plantings — including those specifically designed to attract pollinators — introduced on the solar farm site.
As previously reported by the Addison Independent, Dr. Michael Kiernan of Middlebury has become a leading advocate and practitioner for pollinator plantings at solar sites. His business is called “Bee the Change.”
“Those conversations have started,” Provost said.
College officials are hoping the new solar farm will have the capacity to store excess energy on-site, perhaps even serving as a backup source of energy for downtown Middlebury.
Provost expects Encore to file its application for a South Street Extension solar farm before the end of this year.
Encore would own the infrastructure, and there would be a land lease between Encore to the college, according to Provost.
This project would be executed through what Provost described as GMP’s “green tariff rider concept,” which would give Encore a credit that could be passed on to help cover the premium that the college would be paying for the 100-percent renewable electricity.”
Provost noted the college and Encore were unable to use the state’s expiring net metering law, which allows members to connect small-scale, renewable energy systems to the grid and receive credit on their electric bills.
“We sign an agreement to buy from GMP, the solar energy is put into the GMP grid, and they can identify the amount that’s sold back to Middlebury College — and certify that it’s renewable,” Provost explained.
Encore would be responsible for maintaining the solar farm.
ANTICIPATING CONCERNS
How big is a 5-megawatt solar array? You can see one that was recently built on a Panton farm not far from the town’s office building and highway garage. Similarly, 4.99-megawatt solar array is planned for a 40-acre parcel at the junction of Route 7 and Greenbush Road in Ferrisburgh, and another has been proposed off Halladay Road in Middlebury.
College officials acknowledged solar array applications can generate concern among neighbors. While Provost said the infrastructure won’t be completely hidden, the college hired a consultant to review project sight-lines from different points in Middlebury — including Route 30 — and determined the facility would be “fairly confined, from a sight-line standpoint. That doesn’t mean it won’t be seen, with 30 acres of solar panels. But we will work to identify ways to decrease any impacts it might have. We do think where it’s sited… and being college-owned land, it’s a good location.”
Provost said the project wouldn’t be a big traffic generator, anticipating a potential concern from South Street neighbors, Porter Medical Center and the EastView at Middlebury retirement community.
The college has already informed the town of its solar plans. Encore and college representatives met a few months ago with the Middlebury Planning Commission to give an overview of the proposed site and how the panels could be located there. College officials at that same meeting provided updates on the Goodrich Farm plan and the institution’s aspirations of becoming involved in a local hydropower project — if one were to come to fruition.
“Hydro remains elusive,” Provost said.
Encore’s solar project could produce big payoffs for the college, according to Provost. Electricity produced by the farm would ultimately meet an estimated 48 percent of the core campus’s power and heating needs (assuming the institution meets its 25-percent energy conservation target by 2028). Middlebury’s main campus buildings represent a combined total of 2.7 million square feet.
Environmental Studies students would have an outdoor lab in which to monitor conservation in progress, officials noted.
The college’s mission statement, in part, is to help students deal with the world’s most challenging problems.
“This (project) falls into that category,” Provost said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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