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<B>Solar panels erected at the former Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal are operational and producing electricity. The 2.2-megawatt facility went online in December. (Mark Rondeau)</B>
Solar panels erected at the former Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal are operational and producing electricity. The 2.2-megawatt facility went online in
Solar panels erected at the former Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal are operational and producing electricity. The 2.2-megawatt facility went online in December. (Mark Rondeau)
Friday February 8, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

POWNAL -- After two years of permitting and construction, the-2.2 megawatt solar facility at the Southern Vermont Energy Park went online Dec. 14.

The solar arrays mark the first real economic activity at the park, aside from entertainment events, since 1992 when the former Green Mountain Race Track shut down for good. The 144-acre site was bought in 2006 for $1 million by Progress Partners, which has sought to develop the property in a number of ways, most of which have not been fruitful.

The solar facility itself is owned by Gestamp Renewables, which bought it from EOS Ventures, a Massachusetts-based company, after the project was approved for a "certificate of public good" by the Public Service Board. Gestamp oversaw the facility's construction, which began last year.

Ryan Rainville, electrical engineer for Green Mountain Power, said connecting the solar field to the power grid was a more complex process than one might think. He said the Pownal site was unique in some ways given its location and the engineering hurdles that had to be overcome involved protecting the grid from power fluctuations.

Rainville said the power lines near the facility were moved to run alongside Route 7 rather than cross-country, and those lines had to be upgraded. He said that is the main change most passers-by would notice, but equipment also had to be installed to handle the flow of power now leaving that area because of the energy producing facility.

Another factor that had to be accounted for was "flicker" which is the power fluctuations seen in solar facilities when clouds move between it and the sun. If proper equipment is not installed to manage these fluctuations, the power grid can be damaged.

Rainville said Gestamp paid for the bulk of the upgrades and will reimburse GMP for its own expenses. He said things that had to be upgraded solely because of the new facility were paid for by Gestamp, while upgrades that had to be done anyway were paid for by GMP.

The project is enrolled in the Vermont SPEED program, which offers above-market rates to renewable energy projects with certain capacities. Rainville said the facility does not produce 2.2 megawatts of power at all times; that number reflects its maximum output during peak times. He said one advantage solar facilities have is they produce the most energy when energy is in the highest demand, on hot, sunny days.

EOS Ventures filed for a certificate of public good in 2010. According to that filing, the project was expected to cost $10 million.

Around that same time, Beaver Wood Energy, a Maine company, sought to build a 30-megawatt biomass facility which would have also produced wood pellets for fuel. Beaver Wood applied for a sister-facility at the same time in Fair Haven, but after state energy incentives made both projects not feasible, Beaver Wood abandoned its Pownal plans in the face of local opposition from residents in that town and neighboring Williamstown, Mass.

Progress Partners has said in the past it needs an anchor business to develop the site further. Last year, an officer of the company informed the Pownal Select Board they will be seeking permits to hold a country music festival there. The park has hosted fairs, car shows, and the Lollapalooza music festival in 1996.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr