The Vermont Public Utility Commission has fined the Florida-based energy company NextEra $57,500 for violating its operating certificate at the largest solar development in Vermont.
Coolidge Solar — a subsidiary of NextEra that operates a 20-megawatt solar electric generation facility in Ludlow and Cavendish — was cited for three violations of its certificate of public good, including installing above-ground power cables, conducting drilling and using unapproved equipment.
The PUC’s report found that the Coolidge facility installed more than 8,000 linear feet of power cables above ground, instead of burying them. It also used nine 2.7-megawatt inverters when the project was approved to use 14 inverters with a capacity of 1.67 megawatts each. Posts at the project were installed by drilling into the ground or rocks, instead of the “the approved method of driving the posts into the ground with the potential use of ground screws or pins,” according to the PUC’s report.
In an emailed statement to VTDigger, NextEra spokesperson Bryan Garner wrote that the company did not compromise safety, despite the noncompliance.
“NextEra Energy Resources regrets not seeking prior approval from the Public Utilities Commission before making changes to the Coolidge solar plant that differed from the requirements for project design and construction,” he wrote. “At no time was safety compromised and the plant was designed and constructed pursuant to all applicable safety codes and standards.”
“Our company has made changes to its construction processes and procedures to ensure full compliance with all applicable conditions of plant design and construction,” Garner added.
Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a group headed by longtime Vermont anti-wind advocate Annette Smith, filed a complaint with the PUC in 2019 questioning whether the project was meeting its requirements. Smith said the organization received a tip through its Facebook page.
The Vermont Department of Public Service recommended a $70,000 fine based on the three violations, but the PUC settled on the $57,500 penalty.
“On the one hand, I was pleased to see that the department and the PUC stepped up to ask for a huge fine,” Smith said. “However, in the grand scheme of things, for a company NextEra, this is pocket change. This is the cost of doing business.”
Ludlow Town Manager Scott Murphy said the town was surprised to see the penalty.
“All I can say is, they’ve been a really good neighbor for us,” Murphy said. “The community benefited quite a bit from the construction of the project.”
The electricity and renewable energy tax credits produced by the Coolidge project are sold to Connecticut utilities.
NextEra, which bills itself on its website as the “world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy,” operates numerous other large energy projects around New England. It has filed a petition for a certificate of public good for a 15-megawatt solar project in Brandon.
“This is an extraordinarily wealthy corporation, and they should know better,” Smith said. “They should play by the rules.”
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