Vermont Electric Cooperative, like other Vermont utilities, is working on increasing its renewable energy portfolio. It’s currently proposing solar projects in Alburg and Grand Isle. And this week the co-op presented plans for a new project in Hinesburg. But some residents feel the project isn’t a good fit for their neighborhood.
Residents of Hinesburg’s Magee Hill neighborhood crowded into the town select board meeting Monday night. They were there for a presentation by Encore Redevelopment and Vermont Electric Co-op about a solar project being proposed in their neighborhood.
The project is in the early phases and an application to Vermont’s Public Service Board has yet to be filed. But the preliminary proposal is for a solar array on seven or eight acres that would generate somewhere between one-and-a-half and two megawatts of power. Project organizers say that’s enough to power about 300 typical Vermont homes.
Magee Hill resident Steven Polli said the proposed project is too big to fit in his neighborhood. And he asked the select board to oppose it.
"This is a commercial scale solar panel development," said Polli. "All that we’re asking the select board to do is we want you not to support the project. We are concerned about our property values ... It seems completely out of touch with this neighborhood. This is a residential neighborhood."
Polli also stressed that he and his neighbors are not anti-solar saying, " There are about eight families in a close proximity – within about 1,000 feet of this development – that already have solar panels on their properties. We support solar ... But this large scale in this neighborhood? This seems to me like you’re going to turn Vermont into the New Jersey of solar panels."
A few weeks ago, Vermont Electric Co-op presented the project to the town’s energy committee. And this week the utility was back to share its plans with the select board. Andrea Cohen is Co-op manager of government affairs and member relations. She said in an interview she was surprised by the neighborhood turnout.
"It wasn’t really a public hearing, she said. "We went to go brief the select board. But, frankly, I’m really glad the neighbors came and brought forward their concerns. Because the more information we have, the better project we can make."
Neighbors at the select board meeting accused the co-op and its developer of being slow to inform neighbors of the project. However, Cohen says it’s unusual to solicit local feedback before an application is filed with the Vermont Public Service Board.
"In our opinion we’re very early in the process," said Cohen. "And I think if you’re a neighbor it’s never early enough, of course."
The Public Service Board, not the town, has the authority to approve or deny the project. However once the specifics of the project are hammered out and an application is filed, there is a 45-day comment period before the project is reviewed.
Cohen says the Co-op is striving to meet Vermont’s aggressive new renewable energy goals. And that effort involves building projects near existing customers and infrastructure. She says they’re focusing on Magee Hill Road because it meets those criteria.
"Our goal is to put it in the right place," she said. "And the right place to us is where we have infrastructure already in place, so we don’t have costly upgrades needed. And where we have load, that’s the most important. And, of course where we have a community and a landowner who are interested in working with us."
Vermont Electric Co-op Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wright says more than half of the co-op’s energy comes from renewable sources, including solar, wind and hydro-power. But as the utility looks to meet the state’s goals for new renewable projects, solar is the most likely candidate.
"We’re not going to discount any form of renewable," said Wright. "We’re definitely going to look at price and location. But I think right now what’s really in our focus is solar."
Whether or not that will include a solar project on Magee Hill Road is up to the Public Service Board. However, back at the Hinesburg Select Board meeting, Energy Committee member Chuck Reiss says he thinks, with thoughtful designing, there could be a way to have the project and retain the integrity of the neighborhood. But for that to happen, he says the community involvement needs to start now.
"There may be creative ways to do this," said Reiss. " ... And I would hope that Vermont Electric, and I’m sure they will, work with us. Before you go to the Public Service Board. Because I think once it gets there we’re not going to have much of an opportunity to discuss stuff."
Project developers say they won’t be filing an application with the Public Service Board for a few more weeks.