BELLOWS FALLS — Two Vermont solar companies outlined similar but competing plans for a 2.2 megawatt solar array on the town-owned gravel pit in Bartonsville this week.
The Rockingham Select Board didn’t make any decision Wednesday night, saying it might want to retain a portion of the gravel pit for unrelated highway maintenance operations, and it didn’t know how much of the 44-acre parcel it would need.
The parcel is located between Route 103 and the Williams River, and adjacent to the former Vermont State Police barracks, which is now a truck-driving school.
Solar companies have long eyed the gravel pit, which is all but depleted of gravel, because of its southern exposure and access to three-phase power, according to town officials. Solar companies receive a financial incentive to redevelop such locations as gravel pits, receiving a premium on the money they get paid per kilowatt hour.
The town has also said the gravel pit might make a good industrial site, although it is located far from any municipal water or sewer lines.
Peter Bergstrom, a member of the Rockingham Conservation Commission, said the commission and its energy committee had talked to the solar companies and reviewed proposals and he urged the board to maximize any effort.
“Look at the whole site,” he said.
Bergstrom said the town is well on the way to meeting its state-establish goals for renewable energy. “We’re already 70 percent there,” he said, and the new array would place Rockingham at its 2050 state goal decades early.
Mike Ghia, chairman of the Rockingham Conservation Commission, said the state’s overall goal is to have 90 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2050.
Instead of a small 500 kilowatt hour project, which was initially proposed, the entire parcel, or that which is usable, should be converted to solar panels, he said.
The town can either sell or lease the land to the solar developers, Bergstrom said.
The two solar companies, MHG of Manchester Center and Norwich Solar Technologies, both said their first choice would be to purchase the entire 44-acre site, at a cost of about $286,000. A third solar firm, Green Lantern Solar of Waterbury, has also expressed an interest in the site in the past but didn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting.
Thomas Hand of MHG said his firm would pay $6,500 an acre, for a total of $286,000. On top of any purchase price, he said the project would pay taxes to the town.
Martha Staskus of Norwich Solar said her company, which she said would design and operate the facility, would make a “very similar offer” to what Hand mentioned. She her firm would offer a similar price, but would consider either a purchase or lease option.
Bergstrom said that of the 44-acre site, the open 20 acres would be used for a solar installation.
Select Board member Elijah Zimmer questioned whether there were any other good solar sites in the town, besides the gravel pit, but Bergstrom said the gravel pit is very attractive to developers.
MHG had proposed using another town-owed property, a hayfield next to the Rockingham Meeting House, but that proposal two weeks ago gained no favor from the Select Board, citing both the historic neighborhood and the prime agricultural soils.
Bergstrom said ideally the town would make a decision by the end of May, to take advantage of the state’s current rates for such solar projects.
But while the gravel pit is almost mined out, the town still uses the site to store road construction materials, said Select Board member Susan Hammond. Finding another place for those materials might be difficult, she said.
“I hate to give up land when we still need it,” she said. “We are tight in space. We may just need five acres,” she said. “I don’t think it’s impossible to do both,” she added.
Town Manager Scott Pickup said he would talk to the Town Highway Department about its continuing use of the property and how much space it might need. He said he wanted to get a sense of the board’s feeling about the solar proposals and the gravel pit.
Peter Golec, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, told the two solar developers, who were both appearing via Zoom, that the town would not be making “a snap decision.”
Plus, he said, selling town land might be more complicated.