Monday May 6, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- Town officials are considering getting into the solar-power business.

Selectboard members this week authorized the Dummerston Energy Committee to research the idea of partnering with a private company to construct a solar array that eventually would be owned by the town. But many questions remain, with some Selectboard members expressing concerns about cost, siting and other issues. Officials made clear that they will need answers to those questions before moving forward.

"More information would make it a little easier to decide," Selectboard Chairman Zeke Goodband said.

Alex Wilson, a member and former chairman of the town energy committee, brought the idea to the Selectboard at a Wednesday meeting. He said developers are pursuing such projects across Vermont.

"We’re getting inquiries all over the place from at least three different local companies that are coming to towns around the state wanting to put in (solar-power) systems," Wilson said. "We think it’s a good idea, but we don’t want to put a lot of energy into it unless there’s general support for the idea."

That idea, Wilson said, involves private developers and investors fronting the cash to build a photovoltaic system and then taking advantage of governmental tax credits associated with solar power.

Municipalities cannot benefit directly from those tax incentives. But private companies can, Wilson said.

"The town, over time, would gain ownership of that system," he said. "But initially it would be owned by these investors until they realize their investment benefits."

In the meantime, the solar array might produce enough power to offset the electricity used by Dummerston School, the town’s biggest energy consumer, officials said.

"It would be nice, and it would fit our town plan to be generating a significant chunk of our energy consumption in the town from renewable-energy sources," Wilson said. "We have a goal of getting to 40 percent renewable energy sources by the year 2030, I think. So this will go a long way toward that."

There is local precedent for a public-private solar partnership. For example, The Grammar School in Putney now hosts a photovoltaic system built by Westminster-based Soveren.

The company owns the solar equipment and benefits from the associated tax credits. And the school has a future option to buy the array at a reduced price.

Also, Brattleboro Town School Board this year approved a similar agreement with Soveren Solar. Officials have said the deal would provide annual energy savings, and a proposed solar farm would produce enough power to offset electricity used at the town’s three elementary schools.

But Dummerston Selectboard members were not ready to fully endorse the idea. Selectboard member Bill Holiday said he was "very intrigued" by the proposal.

"I have total confidence in your committee. But I don’t know if the town would accept it," Holiday told Wilson. "I’m sure what the town wants to know is, what’s the cost -- and what is the cost relative to current energy costs."

Selectboard member Steve Glabach raised the most questions, wondering about the impact of a large solar array on Dummerston’s efforts to protect open land.

Glabach said big solar projects can be "unsightly."

"That’s a big concern I have, particularly for the neighbors who have to look at them," he said.

He also wondered about the long-term economics of a solar deal and the possible disposal costs for old solar panels.

"My understanding is, there’s something in them that’s going to be very expensive to dispose of," Glabach said.

But Wilson dismissed that as a rumor that circulates periodically.

"I don’t believe there’s anything toxic about them," he said.

And when Selectboard member Lewis White said he’s heard that solar panels have only a 20-year life span, Wilson said that was a "conservative estimate" that no longer applies.

"There are systems that have been in use for 40 years now that are still doing really well," he said.

Where a solar facility might be built, however, might be the biggest question. Wilson acknowledged that "we’ve been approached about this for several years, and there hasn’t been an obvious piece of land" that is town-owned.

But he said such a project might present financial opportunities for a resident who could strike a deal with a solar company.

"As we thought about it a little bit more, we realized that there may be properties in the town -- private ownership -- where residents could really benefit from a little bit of revenue," Wilson said.

He added that, under Vermont regulations, a Dummerston solar project would not even have to be built within Dummerston for the town to benefit from it.

At the same time, however, Wilson said there "was some sentiment on the energy committee that, if the town of Dummerston or the school board had a large solar system, that we as a town should take responsibility for it and house it in Dummerston."

There is no specific schedule for the energy committee’s solar-power research.

"It would be something we would look into over the next couple of months," he said. "I don’t know that there’s a particular urgency, though some of the incentives come and go. Right now, it’s apparently quite attractive for municipalities to enter into these types of arrangements."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.