Dummerston studies solar programs


DUMMERSTON -- Driven by a town-plan mandate to reduce usage of nonrenewable energy, some in Dummerston are again turning to solar power.

The Dummerston Energy Committee, having rejected a previous proposal from a Waterbury developer, is advocating a two-pronged approach that would encourage private investment in small-scale solar while also engaging the town in a much larger, net-metered project.

Selectboard members did not immediately commit to either proposal. But Energy Committee member Alex Wilson reminded officials that there is a timeliness to the current proposals.

"There are a lot of incentives that exist right now for solar systems, both statewide and federally," Wilson said. "Some of those incentives are going to be disappearing ... so now is the time to pursue this, we feel, to get maximum benefits for residents in the town."

Solar developers have been pitching collaborations with many local governmental entities. Under Vermont's net-metering law, those entities -- towns and schools alike -- can get credits on their utility bills while private investors take advantage of tax credits associated with solar facilities.

While towns including Putney and Townshend have entered into such contracts, Dummerston has taken a more cautious approach so far. Earlier this year, officials questioned and ultimately turned down a pitch from Waterbury-based Green Lantern Capital, which plans a 500-kilowatt solar project in Westminster.

Concerns included the 20-year length of the agreement, the fate of associated renewable-energy credits and, in Wilson's words, the "relatively minor" proposed electric-bill savings for the town and for Dummerston School.

Now, Dummerston Energy Committee is pitching collaborations with two entities -- Solarize Windham and Soveren Solar.

Working with Solarize Windham, officials would initiate a "Solarize Dummerston" campaign aimed at encouraging homeowners to invest in solar panels that would be installed on their properties. The town would select one contractor to handle those installations.

"It's an approach in which a contractor is selected to install systems, and the town -- in this case, it would be the Energy Committee with some associated entities in the town -- does a lot of the marketing," Wilson said. "So it eliminates some of the soft costs that a contractor would face and brings the purchasing costs to a homeowner down substantially."

Wilson said Solarize is a movement that began in Oregon, has been successful in Massachusetts and has gained traction in Vermont communities including Putney.

In Dummerston, he said, "there would be a lot of public education related to this about what the benefits of renewable energy are (and) how the system would work."

And, once a contractor is selected, there would be a quick push to sign up Dummerston residents.

"We would see this being a fairly defined period of time. It's not a program that would go on forever," Wilson said.

Of course, not everyone is able or willing to install solar panels on his or her property. To reach that segment of the population, as well as the town and Dummerston school, the Energy Committee is proposing a partnership with Westminster-based Soveren Solar.

Soveren President Peter Thurrell said the "Vermont Community Solar" offer is to construct a 150-kilowatt photovoltaic system "to benefit the town of Dummerston and the people who live there." The town, school and private residents could tie into that larger system and, through the net-metering law, receive utility-bill credits even though they don't host the panels.

For the town, "this credit amounts to 10 percent of the credit generated by the entire solar farm we propose to build, at no cost to the town. The credit income would last for 30 years," Thurrell wrote in a letter to the Energy Committee. "In addition to a donation of net-metering credits, Vermont Community Solar will retire the renewable energy certificates associated with the 10 percent of the field benefiting the town."

However, Thurrell also said there would be a need for the town -- or for the town and other partners -- to make a cash investment by purchasing another 20 percent of the solar farm's utility credits.

"For example, if the farm generates a total credit of $50,000 in one year, $5,000 of those credits will be donated to the town," Thurrell wrote. "Another $10,000 of those credits will be applied to the town's electricity bill, and the town will pay Vermont Community Solar $10,000 for those credits."

If the town alone doesn't have a large-enough power bill to absorb all of those credits, "then we would need to work together to find another user who will trade credits for cash," Thurrell wrote.

That money is needed, Thurrell explained during a recent meeting with Dummerston Selectboard, so that Soveren has capital to maintain the solar installation.

"When we build a (solar) field, the electricity that is generated at the field is bought by Green Mountain Power. The state Legislature has established the rate that they have to pay and how that whole process happens. But they don't pay for it in cash. They pay for it with credits against electric bills," Thurrell said. "In order to generate the money to take care of the rest of the system, we have to have some cash."

Details of the solar facility's partners, costs and location have not yet been finalized, though.

"We have several sites. We don't have a site yet in Dummerston. We're investigating one," Thurrell said. "And we would like it to be here. It would take about an acre of open land."

Selectboard members said they would take time to investigate the proposal, and the Energy Committee also plans to make a pitch to the town school board.

Committee Chairwoman Jerelyn Wilson said members are "exited" about both the "solarize" and community solar programs.

"We'd like to encourage any Dummerston residents interested in solar -- either for their residence, or if they don't have good solar access, for participation in a community installation -- to contact the Energy Committee (energy@dummerston.org) because, if we gain the endorsement of the Selectboard, we would like to hit the ground running with this program," she said.

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


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