Opposition Forms Around Big Solar

Members of the Randolph selectboard and interested members of the public attended a 2016 site visit for the 100-acre Randolph Center solar installation off East Bethel Road. (Herald / Sandy Vondrasek)

20MW Array May Overshadow Net Metering Options

Randolph residents know a lot more about large-scale solar development than they did in 2016.

And, judging by the tenor of last Wednesday’s hearing on a proposed 20-megawatt (20MW) solar array in Randolph Center, their opposition to a plan first proposed two years ago has dramatically amplified since then.

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The basement conference room of the Randolph Town Hall hit standing-room-only capacity last Wednesday, for an informational hearing on a 20MW array to be sited on 100 acres along East Bethel Road, proposed by Randolph Center Solar.

This is essentially the same project proposed by an entity called Ranger Solar in 2016, but with a new face behind it.

Last year, Ranger Solar’s assets were bought by NextEra Energy, a Fortune 200 energy company with about 45,900 megawatts of generating capacity in Canada and the U.S.—including solar, wind, and nuclear facilities—and revenues in the billions.

Randolph Center Solar, the entity now seeking to develop the 20MW array, is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, LLC, which is in turn, a subsidiary of the parent corporation.

The Randolph Center project, one of five 20MW arrays that Ranger Solar had proposed two years ago, went on pause in August 2016, after the selectboard failed to provide the letter of support that Ranger Solar had requested.

A 20MW array on 100 acres in Ludlow-Cavendish, also now a NextEra subsidiary, will head into construction this year. Another project in Brandon, still in the planning phase, has been scaled back to 15MW, in response to wetlands concerns from the state. The other three projects remain pending.

Process Resumes

In February, Randolph Center Solar advised the town that it was reviving the East Bethel Road project and preparing to apply for a requisite Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC). State law grants towns, abutters, and others affected by the project limited scope to weigh in on the review. The PUC has the final word, and has, to date, approved almost all of the applications for commercial-scale solar arrays it has reviewed.

Last Wednesday’s hearing was convened by the Randolph Planning Commission, which wanted to collect citizen input on the proposal and to hear more from the applicant. The PC’s next responsibility will be to draft a letter listing its concerns about the project and deliver it to Randolph Center Solar by June 1.

Presenting for Randolph Center Solar was Jonathan Willson, a former Ranger Solar employee who had worked on the East Bethel Road project in 2016. With him was Dan Herzlinger, an engineer with TRC Solutions in Maine.

As described by the two men, Randolph Center Solar has taken over the agreements with property owners to take control of about 200 acres on either side of the road, to purchase the acreage to east, and leasing that to the west, leased. About half acres of the 200 acres—40 on the east and about 60 on the west—would be covered with about 96,000 solar panels.

In response to questions, Willson and Herzlinger said most of the acreage has prime ag soils and about 49 acres of the land is now forested and would have to be cleared.

Willson noted that the East Bethel Road location, selected in a “rigorous” site search “is one of the strongest sites in the state of Vermont.” He did not list all of its advantages, but did note it has the desired proximity to high-voltage transmission lines.

Randolph Center Solar (RCS) has entered into a 20-year contractual agreement to sell to a Connecticut electric utility both the electricity generated by the array as well as the renewable energy credits—to help that utility meet its state’s renewable energy goals. He said RCS planned to seek “recommissioning” of the array, after its 20-year certificate of public good expired.

Benefits to the town, Willson said, would be the taxes the project paid, estimated at $87,000 annually, plus yet-to-be determined fiscal incentives to be paid directly to the town.

Not Persuaded

Then opened the floodgates of ardent, thoughtful, and mostly polite opposition to the proposal.

Randolph resident and Atty. Brooke Dingledine hit the Randolph Center Solar project on multiple points.

For one, she said, it would “do nothing” to help Vermont reach its goal of having 90% of its energy from renewables by 2050.

Dingledine, who has represented clients before the PUC in utilities matters, also scoffed at the “pittance” that companies such as NextEra offer to landowners. Dingledine’s warning to Willson that she would be digging deep to understand the finances of this project garnered applause from the 75 or so folks in attendance.

She and others reminded Willson that Ranger Solar had pledged not to pursue development without town support.

When pressed as to whether Randolph Center Solar would honor that pledge, Willson said he hoped to continue the conversation with the town, but added, “I can’t say that if there is no letter of support that the project won’t go forward.”

Dan Kinney, of Randolph-based Catamount Solar, was forceful in his opposition.

“I am all about solar,” he said, “but I have concerns about what this project will do to the grid.”

The problem, he explained, is that large-scale generation can effectively “clog” the capacity of the electrical grid, and thereby “shut down net-metering” proposals for smaller arrays. That’s what happened in northeast Vermont when the Sheffield wind farm came online, he said.

Kinney, who acknowledged he had a vested interest in the matter, advised the PC to push for language in the CPG guaranteeing that the Randolph Center array “won’t limit local farms, families, communities, and businesses” from doing net-metering projects.

In a related argument, Gary Dir, of the Randolph Energy Committee, noted that Randolph, “as a designated Act 174 town,” has been working with the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission to identify sites suitable for renewable-energy projects. All of the projects, he noted, depend on net metering.

Other concerns raised included the loss of quality farm fields, the effects on wildlife movement, possible radio interference from the onsite inverters, and the sheer scale of the project.

PUC Process

An attorney from the state’s Public Service Department, Stephanie Hoffman, was also at last week’s three-hour session. She provided an overview of the Certificate of Public Good process, including the steps the town and affected individuals must take in order to have their views considered by the PUC.

The first step for the town, she said, would be to submit a letter to Randolph Center Solar before it submits its application to the PUC. This will require the applicant to address all concerns raised by the town in the application it submits, Atty. Hoffman said. PC members and Willson amicably agreed on a June 1 deadline to produce that letter.

Once the application is filed, the process becomes more formal, she explained. Certain parties—selectboards, planning commissions, and project abutters—automatically get status as intervenors in the PUC review; others may gain that status by application.

The review process itself will include a site visit, several rounds of information gathering and filing of testimony, and then a hearing before the PUC.

The PUC will issue a draft decision, collect comment on that decision, and then either grant or deny the certificate

Orange County Sen. Mark MacDonald, citing the state’s experience with the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, urged the planning commission to get guarantees from Randolph Center Solar that the site would be completely restored when it stops generating electricity.

“They will want to put aside the least amount (of money) and be the least restricted, because everything you ask of them will come out of their pockets,” he said.

Planning Commission Chair Camden Walters closed the session thanking those in attendance.

“You’ve given us some really valuable information—and now we have a really important document we have to write,” he said.

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