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Solar bond set for vote in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents on Aug. 31 will be asked to support bonding up to $323,000 to buy into the 500-kilowatt Bristol Community Solar Project (BCS), an investment that could save the municipality up to $180,000 in electricity costs during the 25-year term of the bond.

And Middlebury voters will have a second reason to turn out at the polls on Aug. 31: The ballot will feature a second question, asking residents to support a financial separation agreement between the Addison Central School District and the town of Ripton. That agreement must pass muster in all seven ACSD communities (Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge) before Ripton can gain its desired independence from the ACSD.

Earlier this month members of the Middlebury Energy Committee and the Acorn Renewable Energy Co-op urged the Middlebury selectboard to buy into BCS as a way to reduce the town’s energy costs and reduce its carbon footprint. Acorn is spearheading the 500-kilowatt solar array sited on roughly 3 acres of the former Bristol landfill property off Pine Street. The array is to include 1,694 panels of 440 watts each.

Acorn has been looking for investors in the $1.8 million project, which will ultimately be owned (after six years) by the local investors who will reap the benefits of the project’s energy production. Investors will receive monthly credits on their Green Mountain Power electricity bills in proportion to their project ownership. The project will be part of a net metering program that allows individuals or groups to connect small-scale, renewable energy systems to the grid and receive credit on their electric bills for the power those systems generate.

The bond, proponents argue, won’t cost Middlebury taxpayers anything because the financial windfall from the cheaper power will pay down debt and result in substantial savings to the municipal power bills, to boot.

As previously reported by the Independent, Acorn had initially suggested that Middlebury commit to 25% of BCS’s available panels (also called units). The cost per unit is $702.

But Acorn representatives on Tuesday told the selectboard that Middlebury’s investment might be limited to 15% of the total panels. As of this week, BCS is subscribed to the tune of 77%, according to Acorn officials. Middlebury will get at least 15% and whatever is left in excess of that (up to 25%), once the bond vote occurs. Some of those who have signed up thus far might not follow through with actual investment, which could push Middlebury’s buy-in to 25%.

Some selectboard members on Tuesday voiced trepidations about the town’s participation, given the fluidity of the BCS terms and because they were only given a few weeks to make the decision. Selectman Nick Artim was particularly vocal in his opposition.

“This feels to me like one of those sale items, where you have a limited-time opportunity to make a purchase,” he said.

“Last-minute, with such a short time to make a decision… is unsettling to me.”

Artim noted municipalities most often reserve bonding for infrastructure projects, overseen by the town manager. By contrast, he said BCS would be under corporate control for six years before investors assume ownership.

“Do we want to give up control of this much of the taxpayers’ money?” he asked.

Artim theorized that better renewable energy technology could emerge while Middlebury is locked into a 25-year commitment with BCS.

His colleagues, however, disagreed. The board ultimately voted 5-1 (with Artim opposed and Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter absent) to warn the bond vote.

“This technology is today’s technology,” Selectman Dan Brown said of BCS. “We really can’t make savings on technologies we’re waiting for.”

Selectboard member Lindsey Fuentes-George also advocated for warning the BCS bond vote.

“I think we can wait forever for technology to get better, but after days of breathing smoke from wildfires thousands of miles away, I feel like the time to put our energy into solving the climate crisis was 10 years ago,” she said, alluding to global warming and the wildfires burning out West. “Today’s a great day.”

Selectboard member Heather Seeley acknowledged the cost of a bond vote without a firm commitment to the project had given her pause. But she noted that vote will now piggyback the mandatory Ripton-related referendum on Aug. 31, so there won’t be an extra election cost.

She praised the siting of the BCS array.

“A big plus for me on this project is the location — a brownfield, using a location and space that couldn’t necessarily be used for other things,” Seeley said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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