By Julia Purdy
KILLINGTON—The long-awaited power purchase agreement with AllEarth Solar of Williston was scuttled on a 2-1 vote at the Killington Select Board meeting Aug. 20. Board members Steve Finneron and Jim Haff voted against; Patty McGrath voted for. Finneron said he thinks there should be a more comprehensive plan.
Two months of discussion raised many questions and Apex Solar representative Bob Vittengl was on hand to field them. Even though Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth made a sustained argument for the fiscal advantages to the town, the PPA got a thumbs-down at the Monday meeting.
It seemed there were more reasons to reject the plan than to accept it.
The PPA’s broad outline offered a 10 or 20-year lease-purchase option for 18 solar trackers – post-mounted panels that rotate to follow the sun – to power Killington’s municipal buildings only, which would be located in sets of three near the town hall, the town garage, and the old and new library buildings. The town would pay no up-front costs but would make a fixed monthly payment for five years for a specified amount of energy, with reimbursements to the town in year 6 in the case of underproduction of power, or payments collected from the town in the case of overproduction.
The public attending on Aug. 20 registered negative opinions that centered on aesthetics and safety concerns. Gerrie Russell and Andy Salamon both objected to the site near the library, saying that children playing outdoors could interfere with the trackers by climbing on them, especially since Hagenbarth stated that fencing them off was not in the plan.
Salamon also raised a concern about titanium oxide and aluminum oxide being shed from the glass and entering runoff, endangering aquatic life as well as humans. Not enough is known, so the World Health Organization has advised not to use metal oxides in certain applications, Salamon said.
Salamon and Mike Miller reinforced each other’s opinions that future technology will produce better, less obtrusive and more effective solar harvesting, thus making trackers obsolete. Salamon mentioned that a new house paint is being developed that will turn an entire building into a solar receptor.
Questions, expressed courteously but with some obvious skepticism, raised the issues of snow cover, the closest panel height to the ground, tree removal and visual impact.
Beyond such technical details as solar access, azimuth, RECs and offsets, several who spoke – while they did not reject solar energy in principle – expressed disapproval of the aesthetic impact of trackers in such a prominent location. Board member Jim Haff said that, among his constituency, “A lot of people like the idea of solar but don’t like the idea of seeing trackers on River Road.”
Mike Miller deplored the growing loss of attractive landscapes, farmland and habitats along Route 7 and elsewhere.
Gerrie Russell questioned siting trackers at the library, saying it’s “one of the prettiest spots in town” and “ugly solar panels will spoil the view.”
The solar power contract had been investigated by the previous Select Board, which included Patty McGrath, Chris Bianchi and Ken Lee, who was replaced by Steve Finneron in October. That Select Board had approved the project to move forward.
This year there was a note of urgency to sign the contract in time to start producing power before the contract’s “hard timeline” of December. At the July 16 meeting, Hagenbarth had asked if the board signed on Aug. 6, when would Apex put the units in?
“We can fast-track it,” Vittengl said.
At the Aug. 6 meeting, however, no vote was taken to sign the contract. Select Board member Jim Haff scrutinized the details and found them unconvincing. He voiced several concerns, ranging from the cost per kWh to the town to the actual net metering rate. The town would be charged $2,500 per month for 175,000 kWh per year, for 5 years. But what if it used less? Haff asked. He wanted to know what the KWh figure was based on. “Did they come here and take the readings at each spot?” he asked.
“I will agree to sign the contract if we can pay for what it actually produces, not a made-up number,” he stated.
Vittengl responded to Haff’s concern by explaining that usage could not be micromanaged due to fluctuations in conditions between Summer Solstice and December. He said he could produce some figures.
Board member Patty McGrath acknowledged Haff’s reservations but saw a long-term benefit with very low risk. “Basically we are prepaying for the power,” she said.
Hagenbarth was candid: the initial investment is “a little more painful” when not much power is generated late in the season, but it would even out over time, he explained. The discussion then turned to aesthetics and the risks of damage by children.
Haff said he was hearing from his constituents, who were objecting to placement near the old town library and alongside River Road.
On July 16, the board members had met with Bob Vittengl for a site visit to the 18 proposed tracker locations: three behind the town office, three in the apple orchard behind the soccer net, a row of three along the brook by the new library, and three each in the areas of the old library, the town garage and the transfer station. Vittengl described the units as identical to those at the Skyeship gondola on Route 4.
McGrath said she would be more concerned about damage by “exuberant children” than the appearance of tracking panels and expressed discouragement with the information provided to Haff, but she reiterated that further delays could end the project.
On Aug. 6, after continued discussion, chair Steve Finneron declared they were short on information and proposed to put together list of unresolved questions for Vittengl, to be discussed at the Aug. 20 meeting.
On Aug. 20, Finneron read from Vittengl’s reply to board concerns. Certain trees would be removed, and an on-site handheld computer that calculates for the solstices and the equinoxes had been used. Average solar access in November to April is 88 percent, the report said, a figure that seemed high to Steve Finneron.