by Andrew Martin
Questions have now arisen regarding the possible multi-site solar facility that could be built in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Several local utilities, organizations, and individuals have recently questioned whether the 200 MW solar project could happen in the time period first mentioned, or at all.
The proposed solar facility project would involve the creation of seven solar fields in the towns of Brighton, Charleston, and Derby. The project, which is being backed by the Massachusetts-based H.I.5 Renewable Energy Systems and constructed by Ohio’s Vaughn Industries, would call for approximately 800,000 solar photovoltaic modules to be installed across the seven sites.
Vaughn Industries expects to begin training workers for the 200 MW project sometime this winter, and according to the article in the Green Energy Times, work to begin installing the modules could begin as early as 2013. According to H.I.5 President Louise Hart, her company does not own the land where the solar fields will be located but instead has signed a 50-year lease for each field with an easement for solar. Hart also explained that one company involved with the project, Orion Solar Racking, may be permanently moving its headquarters to Vermont.
One of the main questions regarding the facility is the fact that many people in the Northeast Kingdom, even those in the towns where the facilities would be located, don’t seem to know very much about the project despite claims by some involved with it that there has been heavy dialogue with people in the involved communities.
“We don’t really know much about the project at this point,” commented Joel Cope, the Administrative Assistant for the Brighton Selectboard, “We have seen the different media articles on the project, but we have not been officially contacted by any of the involved parties. The story came as a complete surprise to all of us other than the few landowners directly involved with the plan.”
Cope went on to explain that technically H.I.5 and Vaughn Industries are not required to contact any of the towns where the project is going to happen until they are about to file for a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) with the Vermont Public Service Board. Any applicant for a CPG must give the towns and adjoining landowners where a project could take place 45 days notice before filing the application in order to give those parties time to comment on the application. According to Susan Hudson, who is the clerk for the Vermont Public Service Board, there has not yet been any official communication between the board and either Vaughn Industries or H.I.5.
“Our engineering of the project is not delayed,” commented H.I.5 President Louise Hart via phone interview, “We are simply accommodating everyone to the greatest possible extent, which means this is our third design of the project. We are keeping the necessary parties involved and up to speed, but we have not yet presented an application to the Public Service Board… it would be premature to file an application before all the designs and engineering is complete. Once all the planning has been completed we will be filing with both ISO New England and the Public Service Board.”
Despite the fact that they have not yet notified the involved towns or the Public Service Board, Hart and her associates have been in contact with some agencies and individuals in the area of the proposed facilities.
“She (Hart) has met with me twice,” explained Steve Patterson, executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, “She has outlined the project and given me a progress report… I’m not sure what stage she is in exactly but if it becomes a reality we will aid her as much as we can.”
Another aspect of the project that has been questioned by some is the timeline. Applying to the Public Service Board for a CPG can be a lengthy process, which some believe could push back the timeline of training employees this winter and beginning installation of the modules next spring. However, Hart believes that the different portions of the project can proceed along at the same time.
“We are proceeding on schedule and will go to the Public Service Board when our plans are complete while continuing to train our new employees at the same time,” explained Hart, “We will be training our new hires on how to work on the project. We don’t need the engineering to be completed for that… this way when we move ahead our workers will already be trained on how to install the modules and necessary transmission lines.”
“There are a lot of variables involved with the timeline, but if everything goes according to plan with the procurement of the necessary permits we could be starting the project and breaking ground sometime in late spring,” explained Matt Plotts, president of Vaughn Industries, “…solar is the wave of the future, and the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically in the last two years… There are still many variables involved with the permits and engineering but there is no reason why this project shouldn’t happen. This is going to be a good project for the people and consumers in Vermont.”
Vaughn Industries plans to begin recruiting workers for the project in the coming weeks.
A third question regarding the project has to do with transmission lines and capacity. According to Vermont Electric Cooperative Chief Executive Officer David Hallquist a 200 MW project is extremely large and would require very large new transmission lines. However, according to Hart this will not slow down the project.
“Transmission is often the problem in that area,” stated Hart, “We have met with the local transmission companies though and come to an agreement to connect to one of several new transmission lines. Which one will be determined by ISO New England.”
“Yes, there will have to be new transmission lines and substations built,” explained Vaughn Industries’ Plotts.
Along with questions about the transmission lines, Hallquist also raised several other issues with the project, including inaccuracies with some statements in documents that he has procured for the solar facilities.
“The plan contains statements or facts that just aren’t true,” stated Hallquist, “In the plan they attack wind power in the Northeast Kingdom and use several untrue examples… they also make statements about power outages in the area that are misleading.” Hallquist went on to explain that several other statements made in the plan, including the goals for future energy production in New England and the benefits of solar energy over other types, were untrue or misleading.
“Solar and wind are intermittent sources, explained Hallquist, “They can’t always produce, making them by definition less reliable.”
“People need to make informed decisions,” he finished, “Some of the physics of the plan just don’t seem possible.