New South St. Ext. site picked for solar farm

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College and Encore Renewable Energy have shifted the proposed location of a 5-megawatt solar farm that would be built off South Street Extension, spurring objections from around a dozen people who turned out at an Oct. 24 informational meeting about the project.

The solar farm in question had originally been slated for 30 acres of college-owned land off South Street Extension. But planners have elected to site the solar arrays further east of that original spot, in a location closer to the Eddy Farm for Horse & Rider. College officials described the location as being “set back more than 1,000 feet from South Street Extension to the east, and approximately 800 feet from South Street Extension to the north.”

Matt Curran, director of business services for the college, explained the previously selected site  — located upland and to the west — has now been deemed unsuitable due to large quantities of ledge. Trying to place the arrays on ledge would be more expensive and would drive up the cost of the electricity that the college is looking to buy through Encore, which will own the project. Power generated by the arrays will be funneled into the Green Mountain Power electrical grid.

Planners promised a variety of plantings to provide screening for the solar farm.

But that came as little solace to those who turned out at the informational meeting held at the college’s McCullough Student Center. They said the solar farm would be much more visible in the new location, which is characterized by a knoll.

While the area in question is not surrounded by many homes, it’s part of a scenic view enjoyed by the many who walk, jog and bike down South Street Extension, according to resident Debbie Tracht.

“This road is used by college students and many, many people in the town,” Tracht said. “It is a well-loved view.”

The proposed “ER South Street Solar, LLC” project is in keeping with the college’s recently announced “Energy 2028” initiative, built on four primary commitments, according to David Provost, Middlebury College’s treasurer and executive vice President for finance and administration:

• Transitioning to 100-percent renewable energy sources to power and heat the institution’s main campus. The college is building a portfolio of local projects, including an anaerobic digester at Salisbury’s Goodrich Farm that will convert food waste and cow manure into natural gas that will be piped to the institution.

• Reducing energy consumption at its core campus by 25 percent by 2028. The college plans to do this, in part, by making several of its larger buildings more energy efficient, while encouraging the college community to conserve energy.

• Expanding educational opportunities for students to make a direct impact on the college’s renewable energy priorities.

• Reducing fossil fuel investments currently reflected in the college’s endowment fund. That commitment will begin this summer, when the college’s investment manager has been instructed to “not directly invest any new dollars on Middlebury’s behalf” in fossil fuel interests.

In all, college officials looked at eight properties the institution owns in Middlebury to site the solar farm. The other spots were off Route 125, Route 7, South Street, James Road and in the town’s industrial park.

Ultimately, according to Curran, the number one spot rose to the top because of its proximity to the main campus; it was judged “minimally visible” from public roads and viewpoints; and it is on land already owned by the institution. College leaders are reluctant to acquire any new real estate because the institution is already by far the community’s largest landowner, according to Provost.

Those who spoke up at the meeting disputed the claim that the new solar farm spot would be “minimally visible.”

Tracht argued while the solar farm might not be seen by many drivers, it would be seen by a lot of pedestrians and bikers.

“It’s not car traffic; it’s human traffic,” Tracht said.

Resident Lisa Gates agreed.

“This is an enormously trafficked road, in terms of human traffic,” she said. “The number of runners, bikers and walkers who are out there every single day is huge. I would put forth that that’s more important than people who are driving 50 miles per hour on Route 7, or 45 miles an hour on Route 30.”

Curran noted that hers is one of the few homes located close to the proposed solar farm site.

“I can tell you… I can see the (solar farm demarcation) flags from the south side of my house; it’s right there,” Gates said. “From the preliminary research I’ve done, this has a very negative effect on property values, when your property is closely adjacent to a solar farm. The property value impact is negligible when it’s some distance away.”

Resident Judy Wiger-Grohs asked Curran why the college isn’t looking to mount solar arrays on top of its buildings, instead of in fields.

“That is one of the most valued areas in town, as a view shed, as a wildlife corridor, for hunting and cross country skiing and recreation,” Wiger-Grohs said. “You’re going to put something in the middle of a spot that is red hot in terms of its value to the community.”

Curran and Provost said the expense of mounting arrays on buildings would translate to higher rates for the power the panels would produce. When one attendee noted the institution’s $1 billion endowment, Provost said that money is used for financial aid to students. He said he inherited a $33 million annual operating deficit when he joined the college administration a few years ago.

College officials agreed to take residents’ feedback and use it to shape the project going forward. Plans call for Encore to file a project application with the Public Utilities Commission within the next two to three months. Because it is a power generating project, the solar proposal will not undergo Act 250 review.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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