Pownal takes lead in solar power production


These solar panels are part of a 2.2-megawatt generating facility at the former Green Mountain Race Track site in Pownal. The town's total generating capacity will soon more than double, with up to three new solar projects planned or under construction. Photo by Holly Pelczynski /Bennington Banner

[P]OWNAL — With two solar facilities moving toward completion and a third in the planning stages, Pownal is poised to extend its commanding lead in solar power production among Bennington County towns.

Since a 2.2-megawatt Gestamp Solar facility went online in 2012 in what was the horse barn area at the former Green Mountain Race Track, Pownal has been home to more than half the region’s total solar production capacity.

According to the Bennington County Regional Commission long-term regional energy plan, the total countywide capacity from solar sources is approximately 3.7 megawatts.

The Pownal numbers will soon jump dramatically, as construction is underway on a 2.2-megawatt array on about 10 acres of the Palmer farm at the eastern edge of the Taconic Range, just off Northwest Hill Road. Like the former race track property off Route 7, the site is roughly a mile from the Williamstown, Mass., line.

The Palmer site is located within a gravel bed that is expected to continue to operate. A second Pownal solar facility, scheduled to come online in 2017 and located in North Pownal, also is sited within a gravel bed.

Thomas Garden, of Triland Partners, LP, of Windham, N.H., developers of the Palmer site project, said it will include about 9,100 photovoltaic panels. The land will be leased for 25 years from the Palmers, a family that includes two former state representatives, Charlie Palmer and his son, Allen Palmer.

Work on that facility is well underway, with mounts for some panels in place and stacked shipments of panels arriving this week. The facility is expected to go online by the end of 2016.

Garden said his firm developed the project and secured the permits, and it is being constructed and will be owned and operated by Sybac Solar, LLC, of Orlando.

He added that, under the state’s Standard Offer Program process for net metering projects, the developers agreed to provide utilities “a significantly lower price” for power produced than other currently approved solar facilities. The firm could offer a lower price per kilowatt hour produced, Garden said, “because we are very efficient in the way we operate the business; we conduct our due diligence and stay focused on current costs.”

Triland Partners also is considering a solar project of approximately 0.5 megawatts capacity on a site near the Pownal Waste Water Treatment Plant in North Pownal, just off Route 346 at Dean Road, adjacent the Hoosic River. The parcel is a former Pownal Tanning Co. tanning sludge dump site, which was cleaned up and capped during a federal Superfund project during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which also razed the former factory building.

Garden said the firm could apply to the state Public Service Board to begin the permitting process early next year, but he is waiting to learn whether any new regulatory requirements for solar facilities will be adopted that could affect the plan. The town Select Board has agreed to support the project.

Both project sites are good fits in terms of the types of property the state is encouraging developers to consider, Garden said, such as gravel sites and brownfields, which followed complaints that too much farmland was being used for solar facilities.

Another solar developer, Green Lantern Group of Waterbury, has received approval for a 0.5 megawatt array on four acres of a privately owned, 95-acre gravel bed about a half-mile south of the treatment plant on Dean Road.

Ralph Meima, director of development with Green Lantern, said the firm hopes to begin construction in January, depending on the weather.

All of the credits for the power generated at the site will go to Mount Snow resort, Meima said.
The property is listed as being owned by Priscilla Maxon and Sean O’Donovan and is on the former Barlow gravel operation site.

In addition to two project sites being located along Dean Road, the parcels also bookend the former North Pownal mill site and its 153-foot long, 18-foot tall dam and hydro generating plant, which developer Bill Scully is restoring. Scully hopes that his Hoosic River Hydro facility will go online in the spring, with a capacity of generating 3.5 million kilowatt hours of power per year.

Scully also restored the smaller Vermont Tissue Paper mill hydro facility in his home town of North Bennington, bringing that plant on the Walloomsac River online in 2015.

“It is exciting to be part of this larger scope of alternative energy projects in one area,” Meima said.

He added that his “born and bred” Vermonter-owned firm, which formed in 2010 with Luke Shullenberger as CEO, has seen a spectacular era of growth in solar projects. The company now has 55 projects either in operation or under construction and approximately 20 in the permitting stages, he said.

“There are a lot of great solar project companies in Vermont, creating a lot of great jobs,” Garden said of the solar industry here. He said the state’s policies and regulations that have encouraged such projects “have been good for Vermont.”

However, he said there is concern that “there seems to be more regulation every year, which jeopardizes the ability of companies to develop these projects economically.”

According to the BCRC energy plan, in addition to the solar capacity in Pownal, Bennington now has about 1 megawatt in solar generating capacity and at least 12 megawatts of total solar capacity have been proposed for different sites in the town.

Other towns with relatively large existing solar generation include Manchester (about 500 kilowatts) and Dorset (about 250 kilowatts).

Another 1 megawatt of capacity is generated through commercial or small residential projects in the region.

Jim Sullivan, executive director of the BCRC, said he could think of no reason that Pownal is so far ahead within Bennington County in siting solar facilities, as no abundance of prime siting locations was identified here when the county energy plan was being developed. However, he noted that for the county’s only existing large-scale project, at the 144-acre former race track, it was a case of the land being readily available for use.

The other Pownal sites, he said, also have been good locations in terms of the state’s siting recommendations and haven’t sparked significant opposition from the town or among residents.

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Jim Therrien

About Jim

Jim Therrien is reporting on Bennington County for VTDigger and the Bennington Banner. He was the managing editor of the Banner from 2006 to 2012. Therrien most recently served as a city hall reporter with The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Email: jtherrien@vtdigger.org

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