Vermont Is About To See A Surge In Solar Power Projects

05/28/10 5:50PM By John Dillon
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Patrick Michael stands in a South Burlington field that could become the state's largest solar power plant.
(Host) Vermont may not be known as the sunshine state, but it is seeing a surge in solar energy projects.

The developers are taking advantage of favorable electric rates - and a local brain trust of solar entrepreneurs.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Tree swallows dart and dive in the breeze over a 32-acre field in South Burlington. You can almost see the grass growing in the bright afternoon sun. The same energy will soon make this field the state's largest solar electric power plant.

Patrick Michael is the project manager for Chittenden Solar Partners, which is leasing the land.

(Michael) "So it's about 1.8 megawatts that will ... go out of here when the sun is shining at its brightest. And there's about 3 million kilowatt hours that are expected to come out of this facility. And to ground that in a friendlier number, that's about 417 Vermont households powered for a year."

(Dillon) The South Burlington venture is one of a half-dozen or so large solar projects springing up around the state. The sites under consideration include rooftops in Burlington, farm fields in Addison County and an abandoned dog racing track in Pownal.

A combination of factors makes Vermont a hot place for solar, despite the cloudy winters and the multi-million dollar upfront costs. A special rate set by the Legislature jump-started a number of projects. The rate was initially set at 30 cents a kilowatt hour for 25 years. Michael says the guaranteed rate helped developers get financing.

(Michael) "Lenders are always a little shy about risks they don't fully understand and don't have a lot of experience with. I think that having the state sort of underscoring your ability to sell that power for a prolonged period of time has really helped to get lenders comfortable with what we're doing."

(Dillon) The incentive rate program is known as a feed-in tariff. And not everyone thinks it was a good idea to essentially subsidize renewable energy development through guaranteed higher rates.

The Department of Public Service represents consumers. Planning Director David Lamont helped research a study last winter that criticized the program.

(Lamont) "What we concluded was two things: one that the jobs associated with most of the renewable energy technologies in the feed-in tariff were primarily construction jobs, so they were short term jobs. And the rate impacts, which also cost jobs, were much longer term."

(Dillon) Lamont predicts retail electric rates will go up several percent, assuming that all the renewable projects get built.

But Patrick Michael and other solar developers say the program is good for the state because it's helped foster a brain trust of solar experts and entrepreneurs. He says not all the jobs are in construction.

(Michael) "Our suppliers are here, our engineers are here, our designers are here. And there's a significant economic benefit from that, as well. This puts people from this state and this region right in the forefront of all these things. And it's been very satisfying that we've been able to find that. When we were searching for the best people for the job it was pretty neat to have an 802 area code on the front of that."

(Dillon) Lawrence Mott of New Generation Partners in Bristol is working on a number of roof top solar projects in Burlington, including a proposal to put solar panels on Burlington schools.

Mott predicts that the surge in solar will level off as the limited number of projects that qualified for the feed-in tariff are built.

(Mott) "And then maybe it will boost again in the future when power prices will be going up, fuel prices will be going up, and solar continually is coming down. So they're going to match soon."

(Dillon) Mott says the incentive rates will cost Vermont consumers about $1.50 a month - money that he says is well spent because it has helped Vermont become the center of a renewable energy economy.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.

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