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Knox considers moratorium on solar projects

Will present proposed ordinance at town meeting
By Fran Gonzalez | Mar 12, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Knox Selectmen, from left, Galen Larrabee, Bruce Grass and Willie Ingraham listen during a March 9 public hearing on a proposed moratorium on solar farms.

Knox — An ordinance placing a town-wide moratorium on solar farms will come before residents at the annual town meeting March 21. Selectmen and Planning Board members spoke March 9 at a public hearing at the Town Office on the decision to put forward the ordinance.

Selectman Galen Larrabee said the town currently has no ordinances in place dealing with solar farms or taxing them, and that the town could be faced with mounting property valuations if one or more projects were to locate there.

“If a project is going to be $3.5 million, chances are they (the state) are going to raise the value of the town by $3.5 million," he said, "and if we can’t tax it, that means it’s coming off our backs. I don’t think it’s right.” Legislation passed in 2019 created a property tax exemption for residential and commercial solar projects, except for utility-scale developments.

Planning Board Chairman Walter Thompson said the moratorium was needed to protect townspeople from being hit with “major tax bills or make sure they (potential solar farm developers) have all the permits from the state.”

In this way, the town can “get all their ducks lined up, t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” he said.

“We can submit it (a town ordinance) to a lawyer, the code enforcement officer will have eyes on it when we are done, selectmen will see it when we are done, and then after that, we will take it to the town meeting and the townspeople will vote on it,” Thompson said.

Selectman Bruce Grass said the concern arose when Peter Curra decided to go ahead with plans to build a solar farm on 10 acres of land and contracted with ReVision Energy, based in Liberty, to do the work.

Larrabee said ReVision is currently operating on the idea that solar farms are tax-exempt.

Holly Noyes, a ReVision spokesperson at the meeting, said legislation creating the property tax exemption for solar projects also provided for “municipalities to get 50% of the tax revenue that would come to the town on this.”

Noyes added, however, that the current project with Curra, as she understood it, would be grandfathered, and not subject to any moratorium the town might pass.

“Our understanding is that the project is on a different path for that development and that there would be a public hearing,” she said. “This is more about solar farms in general.”

Grass said, “It’s a legal issue,”  and it could possibly need to go before the town in a special town meeting, but the board would have to consult the town attorney.

Brian Byrne, commercial project manager for ReVision, asked, "What can we say to our investor? There is a lot of money out there, there's a lot of engineering, and procurement takes six weeks on this material, and then there's delivery."

"Why don't we meet with our attorney," Grass said, "and get back to you guys and see if this (situation) falls outside of the moratorium?"

Worried about getting stuck with an incomplete project or hit with removal costs, one resident asked what would happen if the solar company went “belly-up.”

Byrne said ReVision's contract provides a “decommissioning plan,” outlining the removal of everything. “It allocates funds for the decommission.” One alternative, he said, is “once the infrastructure is there, when the time comes, you can just replace the modules and recycle the old ones.”

Noyes said, “We are set to remove the panels 120 days after the contract ends. The panels are warrantied for 25 years, but their lifespan is about 45 years.”

In a conversation with The Republican Journal, ReVision Project Manager Nate Niles said that last summer a number of solar energy bills were passed, one of which was the property tax exemption for most solar projects.

“The town would be compensated 50% of the revenue it would have received, based on the valuation,” he said. “The new legislation applies to any owner of solar equipment.”

He noted a common arrangement consists of the contractor or developer, the landowner, who in some cases leases the land, an investor who pays for the project, and the “offtaker,” an entity that agrees to buy the electricity generated by the solar panels. This could be a municipality, a nonprofit or a school, for example.

According to a ReVision spokesman at the meeting, the investor would put up the money to build the project and sign a power purchase agreement with the offtaker, and for the duration of the contract, ”you (the investor) are paid for the power that is produced.” An agreement is reached that is good for the offtaker and the investor, and also good for the landowner who receives a lease fee, he said.

Thompson said, “We’re not trying to stop anyone from doing it; we just want to make sure everyone is protected and that ordinances are written.”

 

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