Wolcott could be home to not one but two industrial-scale solar facilities by 2019.
Along with a town-sponsored solar array at the former municipal landfill just off Dump Road, a separate project is being pursued by Hartford-based Norwich Solar Technologies at the former Courchaine quarry, just off Route 15 near East Hill Road.
“It seems like a good fit,” said Norwich Solar’s Don McCormick, especially since it’s near a major state highway but would still be out of sight.
His company has finished designs for the 150-kilowatt facility and is seeking local and state permits.
Norwich will ask local businesses if they’re be interested in either buying a portion of the facility or purchasing power from it at a reduced cost.
The company undertakes similar projects with large utilities, such as Green Mountain Power, all over Vermont, but also seeks out smaller utility partners, such as Hardwick Electric, and builds solar arrays in those coverage areas.
“We were specifically looking for a spot in Hardwick’s coverage area,” McCormick said. Roughly half the power from the Wolcott facility is already spoken for by businesses that reached out to Norwich. The Wolcott Planning Commission supports the project, and Norwich is seeking a certificate of public good from the state government. If all goes well, McCormick thinks construction could begin this summer.
Construction of the town-sponsored, 500-kilowatt solar facility on the former landfill will likely begin next year, said Belinda Clegg, Wolcott’s assistant town clerk and co-chair of the select board.
“We want to have it up and running” by the end of 2019, Clegg said. The town has selected Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy to build the facility on land leased from the town; Encore already has similar projects in Stowe and Hyde Park.
Once the solar array is generating power, Encore will pay the town government just over $6,100 per year, plus interest, for 25 years. That would total north of $150,000 for Wolcott, plus about $70,000 in property taxes from Encore over the life of the lease.
The Wolcott Select Board won’t sign a letter of support for the Norwich project until it’s clear that Hardwick Electric is on board with both solar projects.
“If one has to be picked over the other, we want it to be ours,” Clegg said. “If they both can operate, then great.”
Norwich has been working with Hardwick Electric to make sure both projects are green-lighted, McCormick said.
“We want to avoid any competitive situation,” he said.
Green energy is all well and good, but Mike Sullivan, the general manager of Hardwick Electric, has a few concerns about adding two solar projects in the coverage area of his utility. Why? Because the power produced at them costs more.
Hardwick Electric currently buys power at a price of roughly 8.5 cents a kilowatt hour. The utility would likely have to buy the power produced by the two solar facilities in Wolcott for 17 cents a kilowatt hour.
“Net metering projects, like Wolcott’s, are more than double,” Sullivan said. He recently met with the Wolcott Select Board and reps from both companies aiming to build the projects to voice his concerns over that possibility.
If Hardwick buys power at double the normal rate, someone must make up the difference — namely the utility’s ratepayers, he said.
“It’s a cost shift,” Sullivan said. “These projects will require increases in rates to stay revenue-neutral.”
Hardwick Electric is also in the midst of developing plans for its own large solar facility, one that utility staff thinks will stabilize rates and costs long term, and that project goes to the front of the line when it comes time to bring any solar farm in Hardwick’s coverage area onto the grid.
“We support solar,” Sullivan said, but it’s better when customers install smaller, private projects.
“Larger developer projects aren’t prudent for our ratepayers,” Sullivan said.
Clegg was unaware before the meeting with Sullivan that the town’s project with Encore could actually cost ratepayers money.
“It was an eye-opener for us,” Clegg said.
The town’s already signed a lease agreement with Encore, and she hadn’t heard anything yet notifying the town that the company planned to call off the work.
“I didn’t leave that meeting with a good feeling,” Clegg said. “We don’t want to make ratepayers pay more.”
McCormick thinks Norwich’s project is small enough that it shouldn’t have a major impact on ratepayers of Hardwick Electric.
“We’re still planning on moving ahead, nothing significant has changed,” McCormick said. “We don’t believe Hardwick has a problem with it.”