Developer pushing ahead with big solar in Vermont

Ranger solarAdam Cohen has the go-ahead to build Vermont’s largest solar array, but he isn’t stopping there.

Cohen, the president of Maine-based Ranger Solar, said Thursday that he expects to now move forward with developing four more large-scale photovoltaic projects in Vermont.

The 20-megawatt arrays targeted for Brandon, Sheldon, Highgate and Randolph haven’t progressed nearly as quickly as the Coolidge Solar project that was recently approved by the state Public Service Board.

But Cohen said he believes the board’s Coolidge ruling has laid the groundwork for Ranger’s other projects. And he’s partnered with two other companies – one based in Florida, and the other in California – to help bring his Vermont plans to fruition.

“Obviously, the Coolidge order was a great result for community solar,” Cohen said. “It speaks to the fact that there are a lot of benefits for the state.”

Ranger’s Vermont plans first went public in 2015. But it took until last week for the Public Service Board to sign off on the state’s first 20 megawatt array.

Coolidge Solar will be built in Ludlow and Cavendish, and it will be four times larger than any array currently functioning in Vermont. State documents say it will consist of about 82,000 solar panels on 88.5 acres of land.

In issuing its approval, the Public Service Board detailed the developer’s attempts to avoid “undue adverse impacts on Vermont’s natural and built environment.” The board also cited “significant economic and environmental benefits” expected from the project.

Though the state has signed off on Coolidge, Cohen said it will take some time for the array to materialize. That’s due in part additional engineering work, but developers also have to finalize and allow interested parties to review a “system impact study” that will detail the project’s effect on electrical infrastructure.

NextEra Energy Resources, based in Juno Beach, Florida, will construct and then operate the Coolidge array.

“We’re looking at bringing the project online in the 2018-19 time frame,” NextEra spokesman Bryan Garner said Thursday. “Most likely 2018.”

NextEra, which bills itself as “one of the largest generators of solar energy in the country,” will be partnering with Ranger on the company’s other Vermont arrays. The same goes for MAP, a Palo Alto, Calif., company that’s working with Ranger as a co-developer.

Ranger’s initial plans included an array in Barton, but Cohen said the company is “not moving that forward currently.”

All of the others, however, are still active. Each of the proposed projects in Sheldon, Highgate and Randolph bears the name of its host town, while the Brandon project has been dubbed Davenport Solar.

“They’ll be 20 megawatts, and sited next to existing (electrical) infrastructure,” Cohen said. “And community-supported.”

Selectboards in Brandon and Sheldon already have supported Ranger’s plans. In a resolution approved about a year ago, Brandon officials noted that Ranger Solar had “communicated with town officials, boards and citizens in a transparent and proactive manner.”

Ranger Solar has filed preliminary notices for each project with the respective towns but has not yet filed formal applications with the Public Service Board. Cohen did not commit to a time frame for state applications.

“The hope is to move these along as soon as they’re ready,” he said.

At this point, the state Department of Public Service – which represents the public interest in energy matters – has not yet reached any conclusion on Ranger’s four additional arrays.

“Until Ranger reaches out to us or formally files something with the (Public Service Board), we wouldn’t typically be doing any review or weighing in,” said Ed McNamara, director of the department’s planning and energy resources division.

But those advocating for the projects think they can make a convincing case.

In terms of finding customers, the four remaining Ranger Solar arrays – like Coolidge – has an inside track with the state of Connecticut. All five projects were selected last year by Connecticut officials as they seek to boost their renewable-energy portfolio, meaning Ranger and its partners won’t have to seek power buyers.

The Public Service Board had no problem with that arrangement, at least in its Coolidge ruling.

The board said Vermont could benefit directly from the array after the 20-year Connecticut deal expires. In the meantime, officials said, Vermont could see benefits from such a large solar array because the state is a power buyer in the regional, wholesale power market.

Cohen echoed that point.

“Vermont is part of the regional grid,” he said. “Stably priced, long-term contracts benefit Vermont.”

Siting such large projects is another consideration. The Coolidge approval came after Ranger Solar worked with local officials and state agencies to mitigate the project’s environmental and aesthetic impacts.

“At a high level, certainly when projects are larger … you definitely need to be more thoughtful about siting and location,” Cohen said.

As for the other four arrays, Cohen and Garner said they will continue to work on final designs with the proposed host towns.

Cohen said he believes Vermonters “would prefer one centrally located project next to existing infrastructure” rather than many smaller solar installations.

The developers also make an economic argument for big solar.

“I think the economic impact is really worth noting,” Garner said. “We’re adding to the energy infrastructure of the state and the region, and with that comes good-paying jobs (and) a big increase in the local tax base.”

Coolidge is expected to bring about 80 jobs during construction and four full-time positions afterward, according to state documents. It’s also supposed to increase state and local tax income by nearly $4 million.

“I think the entire community benefits when you have this kind of economic activity,” Garner said.

Mike Faher

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