By Rachel Goff
Coming this summer, Waitsfield could have a new community solar array in which residents can purchase panels to offset their household energy needs.
Nils Behn of Waitsfield-based Aegis Renewable Energy presented the plan for the project to the Waitsfield Select Board at their meeting on Monday, April 27. "It's a little bit different," he said of the array's ownership structure. "Most of the community solar around the state is still owned by a third party where they lease or sell the power to off takers," Behn said.
With this community solar array, however, residents and businesses will own a specific portion of it by buying panels (which are about 300 watts each). Aegis plans to create an LLC for the upkeep of the array and the operating agreement will be structured so that the panel owners share in its maintenance fees.
Aegis worked with Vermont Law School to fine tune the community solar array's ownership structure. "We really thought very, very deeply about it and there's a lot of legal work that has gone into it," Behn said.
Aegis expects about 18 residents and businesses will buy into the 198kW array, which the company plans to install this summer on a four-acre piece of land located next to the Big Picture Theater and Cafe that it purchased last month.
According to Behn, the land is "not really commercially buildable," he said, as parts of it are classified as wetlands. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) allows solar arrays in wetlands, although they "define how we need to approach it," Behn explained.
Aegis submitted an application for a Certificate of Public Good for the project to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) on April 16. The community solar array does not require a permit from Waitsfield, Behn explained, but "I just wanted as a courtesy to reach out to the town to explain a new project," he said.
Last year, Aegis installed a 102kW municipal solar array at the Waitsfield town garage off of Tremblay Road to help offset the electricity needs of the new town office, the fire station, the Wait House, the Joslin Memorial Library and Waitsfield Elementary School and other town-owned buildings.
At 198kW, the community solar array would be about twice the size of the municipal array and would consist of 616 fixed solar panels. While drivers on Route 100 would get "intermittent views" of the array, "we've tried to site it in a place where it will have minimal visual impact," he said.
But visual impact was not what the town was most interested in hearing about at the board's meeting last week.
"There's two kinds of people that solar really benefits," select board member Logan Cooke said. "There's people that actually want to offset the cost of their power bill to save money and people who want to say, 'I'm green.'" As Cooke sees it, installing the array will be beneficial to the environment either way, "So I would really like to see this going to families that can actually save money," he said.
According to Behn, because of the economy of scale of the project, buying into the community solar array will actually cost less for homeowners than it would to install solar panels on their roofs.
"What we're doing is making this kind of solar affordable," Behn said. "If we wanted to be greedy, we could find one commercial off taker and sell it all to them," he said, "but we're not going to do that."
On the other hand, "It's the town's discretion whether to assess additional property taxes associated with the assets on the land," Behn said, which could affect the array's affordability. But the select board agreed that keeping with the Town Plan's support of renewable energy, Waitsfield would not tax the array and they expressed their support for the project.