State approves solar array that will be Vermont’s largest

The Vermont Public Service Board. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

State regulators have approved a massive Windsor County solar array that will be four times the size of any such project built in Vermont so far.

The Coolidge Solar project, to be built in Ludlow and Cavendish, will be capable of producing 20 megawatts of power. The largest existing array in Vermont is just under 5 megawatts, according to state officials.

A project of this size “had the potential to raise significant issues,” Public Service Board members wrote. But the board said developer Ranger Solar had taken extensive steps to mitigate impacts on aesthetics, the environment, wildlife and power infrastructure.

In granting a certificate of public good, the board wrote that Coolidge Solar “will result in significant economic and environmental benefits for the state of Vermont.”

“Furthermore, the evidence presented in this docket has convinced us that the proposed project can be constructed without undue adverse impacts on Vermont’s natural and built environment and without presenting a risk to health and safety,” board members wrote.

A screenshot of the Ranger Solar Web page.

The Coolidge project application dates to 2015, and it initially spurred concerns from state officials, utilities and some neighbors.

There were worries about whether such a large array could be appropriately sited. There also were doubts about whether the state’s electrical infrastructure could handle Coolidge Solar without expensive upgrades.

In late 2015, a Green Mountain Power spokeswoman said the company opposed the project because of cost concerns and because its size conflicted with the utility’s long-term supply strategy.

The power supply conflicts with Green Mountain Power appear to have been resolved by the fact that Coolidge Solar’s electricity will be going out of state.

The Public Service Board said the project was a winning bidder in Connecticut’s efforts to boost its renewable energy portfolio, and Coolidge Solar is negotiating 20-year power purchase agreements with utilities serving that state.

In testimony before the Public Service Board earlier this year, Ranger Solar President Adam Cohen said both the power and the renewable energy credits from Coolidge Solar would be sold to Connecticut utilities.

Even though Green Mountain Power won’t be buying the array’s electricity, Coolidge Solar still will be using Vermont infrastructure. So the project’s state approval is contingent on the developer’s filing a final system impact study and allowing four weeks for its review by interested parties.

At this point, state documents say, Green Mountain Power “does not anticipate any adverse effects on system stability and reliability” due to the addition of Coolidge Solar.

But the utility wants to be sure, said Kristin Carlson, external affairs vice president.

“To protect customers from any potential impacts, Green Mountain Power asked the Vermont Public Service Board and the board required the developer do a study to assess any impacts to the grid as a result of this project,” Carlson said. “The board is also requiring the developer pay any associated costs to connect to the grid.”

A map on the wall in Green Mountain Power’s control room. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

The PSB apparently wasn’t concerned that Coolidge Solar’s power is going out of state. Instead, the board adopted a broader, longer-term perspective.

Board members noted that Vermont is part of the regional wholesale electricity market operated by ISO-New England. They cited Coolidge Solar’s “extremely low” operating costs and “relatively low fixed costs.”

“Given that Vermont relies in part on the wholesale market for energy and capacity, the project’s ability to lower wholesale prices should, in turn, result in lower retail costs for Vermont consumers,” the board wrote.

The board also said the array is expected to operate beyond the 20-year deal with Connecticut, “after which the project’s energy, capacity and (renewable energy credits) could help meet Vermont’s need for energy and capacity.”

The board cited a number of other factors in its approval of Coolidge Solar, including:

• Regional energy needs.

“The project will help alleviate a gap between needed and available capacity that the region will face in the coming years due in part to the retirement of existing fossil and nuclear generating units,” the board wrote.

Additionally, “all six New England states have aggressive and increasing requirements for renewable electricity,” board members said.

• Proximity of major electrical infrastructure.

The array will be within 600 feet of a Vermont Electric Power Co. substation and “in close proximity to several large, existing transmission lines,” board members wrote.

Also, state documents say a new converter station is proposed in the area via the New England Power Link project.

• Community outreach and adherence to municipal plans.

Coolidge Solar “will not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region” and is consistent with town and regional plans, the state says.

Coolidge Solar worked with town officials in Ludlow and Cavendish as well as with the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission.

Ludlow’s Selectboard voted in December 2015 to support Coolidge Solar, and that support was noted by the Public Service Board in its approval of the project.

• Economic benefits.

The board says Coolidge Solar is expected, over the course of the next two decades, to generate $15 million in labor income and more than $25 million in gross domestic profit for Vermont. Also, the array is supposed to increase state and local tax income by nearly $4 million.

During construction, which is projected to last six months, the project will employ about 80 people, according to state documents. “Four full-time permanent positions are expected thereafter,” the board wrote.

• Environmental impacts.

The board found no evidence that Coolidge Solar would have “undue adverse effect” on wetlands, streams, water supplies, soil erosion and other areas of concern.

Furthermore, the array “will promote air quality in the state and region by displacing fossil fuel generation and associated greenhouse gas emissions,” officials wrote.

Coolidge Solar also has taken steps, in consultation with the state Agency of Natural Resources, to mitigate harm to deer wintering areas and breeding birds.

• Historic sites.

The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation has weighed in on the project. Officials say Coolidge Solar will be constructed so it does not have undue adverse effects on the historic Barker Farm or on any Native American archeological sites.

• Aesthetics.

Despite the fact that Coolidge Solar will feature about 82,000 solar panels and result in 38.5 acres of property being cleared, the Public Service Board said the project won’t have significant effects on the area’s scenic or natural beauty.

That’s accomplished in part via landscaping and “establishment of a vegetation management zone.”

Overall, the board wrote, Coolidge Solar “does not have a broad visual impact” and “would not shock or offend the typical passerby in part because it is located in a remote area.”

In addition to the Coolidge project, Ranger Solar has proposed several other large-scale photovoltaic arrays in Vermont. The status of those projects was not immediately clear Tuesday.

Mike Faher

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