BRATTLEBORO — The sun's absence did not stop stakeholders in a massive solar project from rejoicing in its completion.
"Today, we're celebrating the ribbon cutting for Vermont's largest group net-metered solar array and the largest on a closed and capped landfill," Michelle Cherrier, chairwoman of the Windham Solid Waste Management District Board of Supervisors, said Thursday during a ceremony inside the district's office at 327 Old Ferry Road.
The building is familiar to staff, board members, contractors and vendors, who were thanked for their hard work by the speakers at the podium. The multinational Sky Solar owns and operates the approximately 5-megawatt array outside. Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy helped secure permitting for the project and sign power-purchase agreements with the net-metering customers.
Cherrier said the Vermont Legislature encouraged such projects with the passage of Act 99 in 2014.
"This legislation put the Brattleboro landfill site on a level playing field with typical undeveloped green field sites," she said. "Because it is on a capped landfill, no support structures could be driven into the cap and therefore over 3,000 concrete-filled plastic tubs support almost 16,000 solar panels."
Cherrier said the law provided an opportunity to use "an undevelopable piece of property" and bring "meaningful cost savings" to the towns of Brattleboro, Wilmington, Readsboro, Vernon, Wardsboro, Dummerston, Halifax and Newfane; schools in Brattleboro, Vernon, Putney and Marlboro, and Landmark College; and nonprofits including the Brattleboro Retreat. She said those net-metering customers are estimated to save about $375,000 collectively on their electric bills in the first year with the opportunity for "significant additional savings" over the next 20 years of the contract. The district will receive $102,000 in annual lease payments.
Frank Ruffolo, executive vice president for operations of Sky Solar, said his group was brought on about two years ago. Another developer had dropped out of the project due to financial issues, leaving staff and board members at the district wondering whether it would happen.
"We're so inspired by the teamwork and the local support that we want to continue working with the community," Ruffolo said. "Early on in the process, there was another generation facility here, which was using the methane gas from the landfill site. Sky Solar acquired that site because we needed to have operational control of both facilities. So we now we can harvest energy from the local landfill and harvest energy from on top of the landfill. And it's one coordinated effort under one organization."
With the methane plant depleting after years in operation, Ruffolo said his group is looking at getting an anaerobic digestor to generate more energy from the site and divert food waste from other landfills.
Encore CEO Chad Farrell called the project "exciting yet challenging" and "a great example of responsible solar siting for the state of Vermont."
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report released last weekend was "not encouraging," he said. "Projects like this one, which will provide enough carbon-free energy to power over 1,000 average Vermont homes, are a step in the right direction and can hopefully serve as an example of what is and can be possible when multiple stakeholders work collaboratively to achieve positive outcomes."
Farrell said the project could be compared to the avoidance of about 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide generation for every year of operation. That, he said, can be compared to the annual carbon dioxide created by about 1,100 passenger cars on the road.
"Taken another way, it would require about 3,000 tons of coal annually to create the same amount of electric capacity we have here on an annual basis," he said, adding that lease payments will help with district costs such as recycling, composting, education and "perhaps future renewable energy efforts as well."
Farrell called former Windham County senator Peter Galbraith "critical in helping steer this project forward through the Vermont Legislature."
"Those of you who know Peter know that he usually thinks big, he thinks globally," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden. "With Peter, it was usually about how were we going to solve global warming throughout the whole universe? How are we going to fix tax policy at the national level?"
Ashe said Galbraith had mentioned the WSWMD site, unknowingly approaching him at the same time as a member of the South Burlington Energy Committee about developing on a landfill "a much larger solar project than would have been allowed." Now, both projects are up and running.
Brattleboro Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor said the project represents "a significant step forward" in the town's transition to clean and renewable energy.
"But it's not just the right thing to do for the environment," she said. "It also directly benefits the taxpayers of our town, which I as a Select Board member really appreciate when we have to put the town budget together."
The town anticipates it will annually save about $86,000 in reduced energy costs and receive about $58,000 in new tax revenue. The lease payment to WSWMD is expected to help lessen the dollar amount of assessments paid by its 18 member towns including Brattleboro.
"Who knows?" O'Connor said. "There could be some local job opportunities down the road."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.