hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Power center?

Utility pushes to make Rutland the Northeast’s solar capital



Contributing writer

The 3-acre lot at the end of Cleveland Avenue was until recently considered unsuitable for development.

The property on the western edge of Rutland was a brownfield, its soil contaminated by a coal gasification plant that occupied the site decades ago. The area is considered a blighted section of the city, with a high crime rate.

But in November, a local developer began setting up a 150-kilowatt solar power installation on the Cleveland Avenue property. The project is just one small part of an ambitious effort by Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, to transform Rutland into the solar generation capital of the Northeast.

The utility aims to have the infrastructure in place to produce some 6.25 megawatts of solar power in Rutland by 2017. That would be enough to power more than 1,000 of the city’s nearly 8,000 homes, and Green Mountain Power says it would give Rutland the highest solar generating capacity per capita of any city in the Northeast.

In addition to the Cleveland Avenue site, Green Mountain Power is planning a much larger 2-megawatt solar installation atop a former city landfill, and the utility has compiled a list several pages long of other potential solar generation sites around Rutland. It already operates a 50-kilowatt, 264-panel solar array along Route 7, just outside the city limits in Rutland Town.

Kirk Shields, the director of business development at the power company’s new Energy Innovation Center in downtown Rutland, said the plan is part of an overall strategy shift by the utility to find more sustainable ways to compete in the 21st century marketplace.

State and local officials also are demanding that more power come from renewable resources. The Vermont Department of Public Service has called for 90 percent of the state’s power to be generated renewably by 2050.

“I think we’re seeing a momentum shift in the marketplace,” Shields said.  “We may not be able to base our business on just selling kilowatt-hours anymore.”

Changing markets and policy mandates aside, the Rutland solar initiative also appears to have been aimed at placating critics of Green Mountain Power’s merger earlier this year with Central Vermont Public Service – a merger that resulted in the elimination of the former CVPS headquarters in Rutland. Supporters hope the solar initiative ultimately will offset job losses resulting from the merger.


Renewal through renewables
The decision to build green power infrastructure on top of soil contaminated by fossil fuels makes for great symbolism, but it’s partly a nod to practicality. 

To reach or to exceed its 6.25-megawatt goal, Green Mountain Power must find creative ways to maximize the space available in Rutland, Mayor Christopher Louras said.

For its solar power projects in the city, Green Mountain Power first will target brownfield properties and sites that are deemed otherwise undevelopable because of topography. Rooftop power generation will be the second tier of properties to consider, with prime green space only considered as a last resort. The projects could be a mixture of centralized solar power installations and individual home-based projects tied to the power grid. 

Although Rutland needs and welcomes the new solar projects, the city government also will have to be mindful of its tax base and make sure that properties are set aside for the best use to benefit the city’s economic development, Louras said.

“We’re highly developed, well built-out,” Louras said. “There’s not a great deal of open space for solar projects.”

But the projects could have financial benefits for the city. Earlier this year, for example, Rutland backed a private developer’s plans for a 139-kilowatt solar installation on city-owned property off Woodstock Avenue.

Under that deal, which isn’t officially part of Green Mountain Power’s solar initiative, the city will get a credit on its electric bill of 20 cents for every kilowatt-hour generated, of which it will return 19 cents per kilowatt-hour to the solar installation’s owner, Green Lantern Development. That will net the city a projected savings of about $2,000 a year on its electric bill.


Reviving blighted properties
The Cleveland Avenue site is not the only solar project in the region to reuse contaminated land. In 2010, the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. placed 6,500 solar panels atop PCB-contaminated land at the former General Electric Co. complex in Pittsfield. The 1,800-kilowatt project was the largest solar installation in New England at that time.    

Utilities and solar developers typically can get access to brownfield sites at comparatively low cost, because the alternative uses for these properties are limited.

So in Bennington, for example, a solar development firm is working with town officials to develop plans for a 150-kilowatt solar power installation atop a former landfill that was once a Superfund site. A much larger project is proposed at a former landfill in Springfield, Mass.

By focusing on contaminated sites, solar developers generally have managed to avoid the type of community opposition that has stalled or slowed many wind power projects in New England. Although prime sites for wind power generation are almost by definition highly visible, solar panels can be put in locations that are less obtrusive – and a lot less pristine.

If Green Mountain Power is creative and finds enough publicly and privately owned brownfield sites around Rutland, it might find enough parcels to meet its solar generation goals.

Last month, city officials and the power company finalized the deal for a 2-megawatt solar project atop the city’s capped landfill, said Brennan Duffy, executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority. Duffy’s quasi-public agency is looking for just this kind of development to get former industrial sites back into circulation. 

Offsetting lost jobs

Green Mountain Power’s plan to build up Rutland’s solar capacity is partly a means to keep a promise it made to the state Public Service Board when the company was seeking approval to merge with Central Vermont Public Service earlier this year. CVPS had been headquartered in Rutland; the merged company is now based at Green Mountain Power’s headquarters in Colchester, just north of Burlington.

As part of the deal, Green Mountain Power promised that Rutland would not experience any greater share of job losses than the state as a whole as a result of the merger. Although the CVPS headquarters was shut down, Green Mountain Power has opened up its new Energy Innovation Center in the former Eastman’s building in downtown Rutland, and it held a “solar summit” that attracted solar developers and state officials to the city for a day of discussions in August. 

Duffy said he hopes the jobs created by the solar projects and the power company’s other investments in the city will offset the losses from the closing of the CVPS headquarters.

“There will be some consolidation, but we’re planning there will not be a large loss of employment,” Duffy said.    

Some critics of the merger are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the power company’s investments in Rutland. 

State Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said the solar projects are a good start, but it remains to be seen whether the power company will follow through on the jobs pledge. The loss of the CVPS corporate headquarters hit Rutland hard at a time when the city was already reeling from other job loses, Mullin said, and he questions how the company will track job gains and losses. 

“Those were a lot of good-paying jobs here,” he said. “They say that nobody’s going to lose their job, but those job losses are going to be through attrition.”

Critics also have argued that the merger slighted ratepayers out of millions of dollars they invested to bail CVPS out of financial trouble in 2001. At the time, state officials and the power company pledged that ratepayers would recoup at least $21 million of the public investment in CVPS if the company ever was sold. But when the merger went through, that company instead pledged to invest that money in weatherization programs and other power-saving measures, rather than returning it to ratepayers.

The advocacy group AARP of Vermont wanted the money to go directly back to ratepayers, spokesman David Reville said. The measures proposed by Green Mountain Power to use renewable energy and energy efficiency to lower rate costs might help ratepayers regain their lost investment, but the jury is still out, he said.

“There were promises,” Reville said. “It’s yet to be seen.”


A magnet for entrepreneurs?
Ben Walsh, a clean energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said he views Green Mountain Power’s solar investment in Rutland as much more than a publicity gambit. Although the cost of producing power renewables is still higher than the cost of using conventional fuels, the gap has been narrowing, and Walsh said progressive power companies are beginning to see win-win scenarios with investment in renewable energy. 

As regulators are pushing to find cleaner ways to generate power, it’s getting easier for power companies to do the right thing, Walsh said. Green Mountain Power has been among the utilities leading the way with its investments in solar and wind power, he said.

“Green Mountain Power has definitely been friendlier to renewable energy than most utilities,” Walsh said.

The company is touting its solar program as a jobs multiplier, saying the effort will attract other solar projects and like-minded businesses and make Rutland a hub for renewable energy development.

Shields, of the utility’s Energy Innovation Center, said the company never envisioned going it alone to build up the city’s solar capacity. It also hopes to facilitate separate, privately funded solar projects. 

“We don’t want to take over the entire solar space,” Shields said. “We really want this to be a partnership as much as we can.” 

At the Cleveland Avenue brownfield site, Green Mountain Power partnered with Same Sun of Vermont, a 1-year-old solar company based in Rutland. Co-owner Marlene Allen said she and her husband started Same Sun when they heard that another solar company had stopped offering residential solar installations in the area. The Allens – he had been a fine arts dealer, and she had worked as a commercial real estate appraiser in the past -- saw an opportunity.

“We kind of saw a hole in this part of the state,” Allen said. “Frankly, we had a hard time finding an installer to work on our house.” 

Allen expects the Cleveland Avenue project to take six to eight weeks to complete, and she hopes her company will be picked for future projects with Green Mountain Power. Same Sun operates out of a storefront on Center Street in downtown Rutland.     

The Cleveland Avenue project is getting a boost from $13,000 in grant money from the state’s Small-Scale Renewable Energy Incentive Program, which is part of the Clean Energy Development Fund administered by the state Department of Public Service.

Andrew Perchlik, the manager of the Clean Energy Development Fund, said the money comes from payments made by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, but that funding stream runs out this year.

“We’re just spending the last of it,” Perchlik said. 

He said grants from the renewable energy fund are capped at a bit less than $30,000 per company or per project, whichever comes first. Green Mountain Power can’t tap into the fund anymore because it has already received the maximum funding, he said, but independent solar companies like Same Sun can seek grant money for projects facilitated by the utility.

Louras said he hopes other companies will choose to relocate to Rutland to take advantage of the opportunity to partner with Green Mountain Power and its Energy Innovation Center. Recently, Small Dog Electronics announced it would set up a store across from the center in downtown Rutland. City officials had been trying to lure the electronics retailer to Rutland for some time, but it was a partnership with Green Mountain Power that sealed the deal, the mayor said.

“That was what put them over the edge to relocate to Rutland,” Louras said.

Louras said he hopes the power company’s solar projects will create a critical mass that will attract enough other innovative businesses to the city, helping to revitalize Rutland’s economy and reshape the city for the high-tech era. 

“There’s a recognition that we can’t simply rely on the old models of manufacturing and industry,” Louras said.



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