Pownal Solar On Track For Summer Ground BreakingBy Stephen Dravis
Special to iBerkshires
03:53PM / Saturday, May 12, 2012
POWNAL, Vt. — Twenty years after the race track here closed for good, the site just north of Williamstown, Mass., is on track to finally have another permanent occupant.
This summer, Spain-based renewable energy company Gestamp Solar plans to finally break ground on a planned 2.2 megawatt, 15-acre solar power installation.
"We are finalizing agreements for continued cleanup and the final cleanup of the location at the site and prepping that for the beginning of construction," Gestamp senior project manager Mike Moretz said in a telephone interview this week. "We anticipate beginning construction... in mid-June to late June — the first of July at the latest."
And if the project stays on that timetable, Moretz said he thinks a mid-autumn startup for the operation is likely.
The owner of the 144-acre former race track, Progress Partners, had hoped to see the property become an energy park, between the development of the photovoltaic installation and a biomass facility. But the biomass plan ran into loud opposition in Southern Vermont and nearby Williamstown that, added to a state ruling on permitting, prompted developer Beaver Wood Energy to drop the proposal last year to concentrate on a biomass facility farther north in Fair Haven.
Gestamp Corp., whose subsidiaries include Gestamp Renewables and Gestamp Solar, has a global staff of more than 20,000 employees in 25 countries. The solar division has developed more than 300 MW of photovoltaic plants to date plans to add nearly 550 MW in Europe, North America and Asia by 2013, according to its website.
Moretz is based in Virginia near Washington, D.C. He said he planned to be in Pownal this week to review progress at the site and talk with local partners.
Gestamp plans to use local contractors with knowledge of the climate and conditions, and he indicated the construction timeline would be adjusted based on those conditions.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the global firm with offices in Florida and California had purchased rights to the Pownal project from Hancock, Mass.,-based Eos Ventures for an undisclosed sum. Eos delivered the property at the former Green Mountain Racetrack with all the permits in place for what would be the largest solar farm in New England.
Moretz said Gestamp is re-evaluating its permits in light of energy legislation recently passed in the Vermont Legislature.
Gestamp waited on events in Montpelier to unfold before breaking ground on the project, he said.
"The project is fully permitted, but this legislation made a determination that if projects had not gone into commercial operation yet, they could re-evaluate the meaning of their official filing," Moretz said.
"We don't think [the new law] does require us to redo permitting, but we have to go back and re-evaluate those things."
The bill in question, the Vermont Energy Act of 2012, passed the Senate and House on May 4. Among other things, it increased the number of renewable energy projects in the state eligible for "standard offer prices," a state-regulated incentive program.
The non-profit advocacy group Renewable Energy Vermont in February came out in favor of expanding the standard offer program.
"We're extremely grateful for [Gov. Peter Shumlin's] strong support for assuring Vermont doesn't miss out on the 'energy revolution' and for his commitment to expand Vermont's innovative standard offer program in his recent State of the State address," REV Chairwoman Martha Staskus said this winter. "The many diverse businesses and workers of our state stand with him, and we're ready to go."
Staskus' group represents nearly 300 businesses, individuals and colleges, including Vermont Renewable Fuels, a Manchester firm that operates a 9-acre distribution center in Pownal.
REV called the standard offer program "the most effective method for meeting strong renewable portfolio goals."
Gestamp Solar officials in January cited the state's favorable environment for solar projects as one of the reasons it acquired the Pownal site.
Moretz echoed that sentiment this week and said that Gestamp is developing a 2.1-megawatt solar installation in Williamstown, Vt., near Barre.
"Vermont seems to be very strongly supporting the movement," he said.
"We think you guys did it right."