A solar company with its roots in Oregon is eying farmland off Route 7 for two new solar projects.
Steve Schmidt and Julie Van Lith, both of Pacific Northwest Solar, met virtually with the Planning Commission on Sept. 17 to talk about early plans for side-by-side solar projects on land owned by the Thomas family. One project would produce 2.2 megawatts, while the other would produce 1 megawatt.
"Both projects, recently in the last auction, received (power purchase agreements) and we are expecting to have the final versions of those probably within the next few weeks," said Schmidt.
His company has yet to file a 45-day notice with the Public Utility Commission. He said the hope for the meeting with the Planning Commission was to iron out any problems and identify challenges prior to filing for a state permit.
In Vermont, the PUC has regulatory authority over solar projects that supersedes town laws. Towns are automatically made party to PUC proceedings, and if they have approved enhanced energy plans, as Rutland Town does, they can gain more influence in the state permitting process.
Schmidt indicated the projects will be enrolled in a state subsidy program, which is capped at 2.2 megawatts, hence the size of these projects and why there are two of them.
“You are allowed to have more than one project on the same parcel if they don’t share facilities,” Schmidt said. “These will have separate interconnections with Green Mountain Power; they’ll be fenced off separately ... so they’ll effectively be two separate projects. They will simply be located adjacent to each other on the same parcel.”
These panels rotate from east to west, tracking the movement of the sun, he said.
The diagrams of the projects he showed to the Planning Commission are preliminary, he said.
“We expect when we make a formal submission to the state that there will be some changes to exactly the way they’re laid out,” Schmidt said.
The projects’ combined footprint will be between 20 to 25 acres, he said. The plan is to buy the parcel from the Thomas family by the end of the year. The entire site is 33 acres, and has wetlands to the north, which won’t be affected.
Schmidt wanted to know whether the town would allow the project to expand the 25-foot buffer from the edge of Route 7 to 200 feet. He said this would allow commercial development along that strip. He said Pacific Northwest Solar has no plans to develop anything but solar there, but such a configuration might allow for it in the future.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Barbara Noyes Pulling said that would be potentially doable, and advised that the Agency of Transportation would prefer to limit the number of curb cuts along that stretch of road, given that it’s narrow and heavily trafficked.
Pulling said that she knows from past proposals that one end of the sites may be of archeological importance. Schmidt said that area can likely be avoided by the project.
Asked about screening from the road, Schmidt said there are some trees there now, which can be added to if needed. He was also asked about having animals graze on the project site instead of mowing. He said Pacific Northwest Solar has done that in the past and could do it here as well, most likely, but without agreements in place ahead of time, he didn’t wish to make the commitment. He said using grazers is cheaper than hiring mowers.
Pulling said the state also is sensitive to development on agricultural land, which this is. On a similar note, Planning Commissioner Norm Cohen advised the developer to look over the town’s enhanced energy plan and its criteria, specifically with regard to aesthetic impacts.
Pulling said the Select Board also will want to hear about the project, and would likely have questions about the projects’ impact on taxes. Schmidt said he believes these projects would increase the land’s value and, therefore, the tax revenue.
Select Board Chairman Joshua Terenzini said Monday that the Select Board has been informed of these projects but he said hasn’t yet discussed them or met with the developer.
At the start of the meeting, Schmidt told the commission that Pacific Northwest Solar, as the name implies, began in Oregon but has since expanded across the continental United States.