This week voters in the village of Hyde Park and the town of Stowe each approved building community-based solar projects. Once online, the projects will help the small municipal electric departments meet Vermont’s new renewable energy standards.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature passed legislation mandating electric utilities in the state get a portion of their power from renewable sources. The mandates go into effect next year and increase through 2032.
Stowe and Hyde Park are the first of Vermont’s 16 municipal utilities to go forward with community-based power projects under the new law. By the end of the summer both municipal utilities plan to have one-megawatt community-based solar projects online.
Carol Robertson is general manager of the Village of Hyde Park and Hyde Park Electric. She says planning this project has been a big undertaking, and she couldn’t have done it without partnering with Stowe, the state, and others in the industry.
"I hope that we’re a path for other small municipals and large municipals to be able to work together," said Robertson, "because that was our intent."
Both projects were approved by voters on Tuesday. The votes were timed to take advantage of federal Clean Energy Renewable Bonds, known as CREBs. Kevin Weishaar, the Stowe Electric, controller, explains that the federal government announced last spring that it would re-offer the CREBs for municipal projects like those in Stowe and Hyde Park.
"Basically, they gave all their money out. A lot of projects didn’t happen, so this money was left over," said Weishaar. "And they took a portion of it, about $800 million and assigned it to small municipals."
The tricky part was that the utilities only had six months to plan their projects and apply for the bonds. Fortunately for Stowe and Hyde Park, they had a lot of local support. It’s not unusual for large solar projects to get push-back from neighbors and others concerned with the way the projects look. But that wasn’t the case in Hyde Park or Stowe.
Robertson said the Hyde Park project is located on Sterling Ridge Road, by the only industrial building in town, and is bordered by wetlands.
"The community has been very pleased, as well as the neighbors, with that site," she said. "Very little view impact. Very little, if any, and we’re going to mitigate as much of that as we possibly can."
In Stowe, the utility is leasing the town’s old gravel pit, which is up Beech Hill, above Nebraska Valley. Stowe Electric General Manager Ellen Burt says the location is ideal and the town’s general fund will benefit from the long-term lease.
"If you’re going to build solar, a reclaimed gravel pit is the place to put it on," said Burt. "And so, everyone here is very happy with that. It’s providing the town with $500,000, and so everyone in this community wins on this."
Both communities anticipate the solar projects will stabilize electric rates and, thanks to CREBs financing, save each department $2 million over the next 30 years. Stowe is one of the larger municipal utilities in the state and Hyde Park one of the smallest. So while both utilities are building essentially the same project, they will have different impacts.
In Hyde Park, Robertson says the project will completely meet the state’s new energy standards for about six years. And in addition, the department will eventually produce what she calls “penny power.”
"And over 30 years, the average cost of power will be about a penny per kilowatt-hour," she said. "And above that penny will be savings of over $2 million. So it’s a big deal for little Hyde Park."
Burt says, because Stowe is larger, this solar project will only get the utility part of the way toward meeting Vermont’s renewable energy standard. The average cost of electricity from the project will be relatively cheap — about three cents per kilowatt-hour over 30 years.
"The best you can do for your ratepayers is to put a power source in your territory, because you don’t pay to transport it and you don’t pay that reserve on the wire," she explained. "So, with these projects, we’re cutting out all those costs. It’s what they call behind-the-meter generation."
Vermont is likely to see more behind-the-meter generation projects as the state’s new renewable energy standards are phased in.