Rutland Looks To Gain From Solar Investments

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When Green Mountain Power announced plans to merge with Central Vermont Public Service, GMP President Mary Powell promised Rutland a few concessions. While the city would lose the corporate headquarters of CVPS, it would gain an energy innovation center.   

And with GMP’s help, Rutland would gain a new nickname: The solar capital of Vermont – maybe even New England. 

Critics of the merger rolled their eyes. But many in Rutland hope new investments in solar power may be a good way to jump start the city’s economy.

Marlene and Philip Allen love the whole solar city idea.  They should. They own a company in Rutland that installs solar arrays. Their business, Same Sun of Vermont, will construct Green Mountain Power’s first large solar project in the city.

"I think most people would agree that a solar array is going to be more attractive than what you’re looking at right now."    

Philip Allen is talking about a three-acre field that’s now mostly dirt and scrub brush with a pair of dilapidated factories across the street.  Heavy equipment is already at work there and next week, he says they’ll begin installing a 150-kilowatt solar array on the site.

"About 30 rows of 24 modules each.  There’s their substation there. This is going to put clean energy directly on the grid that they’ll own and make profit on." 

Green Mountain Power is negotiating to install an even larger array on a Rutland city landfill. Utility officials say their goal is to have between 6.4 and 8 megawatts of solar power generated in Rutland – at both utility owned and private sites.  That’s enough to power 6000 to 8000 homes.  Allen admits that’s not a huge amount of power – but he says it is a huge amount of buzz for the industry.

"Seventy percent of the people in the state of Vermont now get their bills from Green Mountain Power. So when the people who provide you with power put such an emphasis on Solar it makes people think why?"

But  skeptics  are quick to point out that Rutland is no Phoenix and it lacks the wide-open spaces best suited for large solar developments.

Many in Rutland County who’ve fought recent wind developments have pointed out that Vermont already has plenty of clean energy thanks in part to Hydro Quebec. And with federal budgets on the chopping block, the generous subsidies now available for solar projects may not last much longer.

"What solar really does in Vermont is it carves down the peak. 

Mary Powell, president of Green Mountain Power, says solar power can play an important role in the state.

"Vermont is a summer peaking state. The hot, sunny days in the summer are when we hit our peak. So one of the interesting things we want to study in Rutland, with VELCO – we want to partner with them as the transmission provider, is to really demonstrate that solar is an alternative way to shave peak in the state of Vermont.    

In other words, the more power GMP can access locally when the grid is stressed, the less they’ll have to buy on the open market when it’s most expensive.

Philip Allen of Same Sun of Vermont says that’ll save GMP and its customer’s money. But he says it’ll also make money for private investors and create local jobs.

"The Paramount Theatre people came down with the plans for their roof top and asked us what it would take for them to go solar. Twenty-Four Center Street also houses some great architects and two of them came down with their plans asking us how they could incorporate solar in their designs."

If all the planned solar arrays get built, officials in Rutland say it could mean an extra $100,000 in annual tax revenues for the city.  But while installation jobs and tax revenues are good, what city officials really want are long-term manufacturing jobs, especially high tech ones.  Rob Babcock owns a solar development firm outside Washington, D.C.  He says the cost of solar panels has come down dramatically.  But everything else – the racks, converters, meters and transformers – what’s known in the industry as balance of system technology – that’s an area he believes is ripe for innovation.

"That part of the industry, if you assume as I do that solar power will increase over time, then the places where manufacturers in this country will make the money is going to be in those subsidiary systems, those balance-of-system places. That’s the kind of thing that could happen in Rutland and you could make a business that has 200 – 300 jobs and exports their product around the country."

One energy analyst in the state who asked not to be identified was doubtful, saying Vermont’s permit process would be a big obstacle to that kind development.  But Steve Costello, Green Mountain Power’s Vice President of Generation and Energy Innovation says why not Rutland?

"I think you have to dream big – there’s no point in dreaming unless you’re going to look at the big picture.  And we’re certainly optimistic that those types of things can happen. But I think it’s important not to lose site of other types of development that can happen because of this."

Like the development GMP President Mary Powell announced last Friday in Rutland.     

"As you can see we have made a very important strategic decision for the company – and we have officially acquired the Eastman building and it is the future home of Green Mountain Power’s Energy Innovation center.  So woo hoo!"

Michael Coppinger, head of the Rutland Downtown Partnership says local leaders are thrilled because GMP chose to locate the new center in what has been one of the largest blighted properties in the downtown. 

"This alone, between the redevelopment of the property, but moreover the employees and the activity that it will bring to downtown and certainly this side of Merchants Row is just enormous."

Utility officials say the energy innovation center will be part think tank, part education center and part public space – complete with museum type displays.

"We want to be kind of a one stop shop where customers can learn about electricity, learn about energy conservation, renewables etc, but also have a good time doing it."

When the new center opens just over a year from now about three-dozen people will work there. Costello says a big part of their job will be thinking about how customers will get and use energy well into the future. That’s going to be vital he says considering the lofty energy goals set by the Shumlin Administration. Within the next 20 years, 75 percent of Vermont’s energy needs – everything from transportation and land use, to heating and electricity – has to come from renewable sources.   That requirement jumps to Ninety percent renewable by 2050.

"That is a huge, huge challenge and literally we see no way to do that without electricity playing a major role."

Costello says Green Mountain Power expects to get at least Sixty-three percent of its energy from renewable sources in 2013.  But he says improving that will be one of the challenges facing his team in Rutland. He believes their work will attract other high tech businesses – like Small Dog Electronics which recently announced they’d open a store in Rutland next spring.

Don Mayer, Small Dog’s CEO says he’s been interested in Rutland for some time, but admits his partners were not.

"They said, look Rutland has all kinds of vacancies.   It’s not a town that’s growing. Then Mary gave me that call and that was sort of the straw that broke the camels’ back. She said, look I’m going to be doing some great stuff in Rutland and it would be great if you guys could come too."

Whether other businesses will follow is the $64,000 question. Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County senator, has been a vocal critic of the utility merger believing Rutland will lose more jobs than it gains.

"Small Dog brings in new jobs. But at the same time that Small Dog will brings in new jobs, course that won’t be ‘til next year, the management team at GMP is trying to figure out what to do with roughly two-dozen temporary employees that Central Vermont Public Service had."

GMP made a commitment not to eliminate any full time positions, but Mullin says they’re considering these jobs part time even though some of the folks have worked there for more than two years. 

"And it’s still a very scary situation for me."

Mullin says that while he’s been impressed with GMP’s management team, he believes his job will be to make sure they follow through on the many promises they’ve made.  Small Dog’s announcement, the new energy innovation center and planned solar projects are a good start, he says.  

"It bodes well, but again it’s low hanging fruit. We need a lot more jobs and we’ll see how far the solar city route goes.  And if they are accurate in their assumptions, I’ll be happy to be wrong."

NOTE: GMP President Mary Powell is a member of VPR’s Board of Directors, but has no input into editorial decisions.

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