ST. ALBANS — Northwest State Correctional Facility (NSCF) is welcoming all the rays it can get on Lower Newton Road, where 65 solar trackers – each with 24 panels – now sit, move with the sun and power the state prison.
This news comes about a year after the project was first presented to the St. Albans Town Selectboard in November of 2013. It received a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Service Board on Oct. 23.
The 500-kilowatt solar farm, installed late in the fall and placed online on Dec. 18, is made by and operated through AllEarth Renewables of Williston. The solar trackers sit at 30 to 45 degrees during the day, and flat at night and during high winds.
In addition to NSCF, solar farms were installed recently at state correctional facilities in St. Johnsbury and Windsor, and more are planned for other state-owned buildings – 19 in total.
“These three [projects] are the first done for the state,” said AllEarth Renewables chief strategy officer Andrew Savage on Thursday. “These are big energy users, so they were very budget-cost conscious.”
Savage said the expected output for the NSCF solar farm is about 825,000 kilowatt hours per year, energy that will not only power the prison but several other buildings in Montpelier as well.
A lease agreement between the state and the company determines that the state will receive five percent of its solar energy for free from AllEarth Renewables, and then another five percent in exchange for leasing the land to the company.
According to a Jan. 13 press release from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office, the statewide solar initiative is expected to save taxpayers $2.5 million over 20 years.
“Vermont is at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution in America, and this is just one more example of how we are leading the way,” Shumlin said. “We will continue to invest in energy innovation going forward because it creates jobs, saves money for Vermonters and helps ensure a more livable planet for future generations.”
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for Vermont state government to utilize renewable energy,” said Dan Edson, a building engineer for the State of Vermont, by phone last week. “We’re doing our part to reduce green house gas emissions.”
As for St. Albans Town, the selectboard could technically only make suggestions on the project due to its small size and scope – the only requirement through the Vermont Public Service Board was to send a notice to the selectboard, planning commission, abutting landowners the Northwest Regional Planning Commission within 45 days of the filing for the project’s permit.
Despite this, AllEarth Renewables made an effort to work with the community.
The company’s senior project manager Martha Staskus originally presented the solar farm project to the selectboard in late 2013. At that point selectboard members suggested the solar trackers be installed in a less visible place than on the side of the road behind the prison sign.
In the Nov. 25, 2013 meeting minutes, St. Albans Town Manager Carrie Johnson explained that the state wanted the panels visible to promote the prison as “green.”
AllEarth Renewables took the selectboard’s suggestion, however, and in March 2013, Staskus told Johnson the new plan was to put the trackers perpendicular to the original position, on the east side of the prison towards the back of the property.
The selectboard didn’t give Johnson much feedback on the new location, and that’s where the solar farm was ultimately installed. On a visit to NSCF last Thursday, the shiny black panels stood quiet in their rows beside the prison, visible from the road but perhaps not obtrusively so.
“We feel really strongly that working with the community results in the best projects,” said Savage. “We think it’s a real win-win.”