The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) expects to use an increasing number of properties and rights-of-way for the installation of solar power projects that could help the agency meet its renewable energy goals, reduce emissions and save money, joining seven other state departments of transportation in developing such facilities.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation Solar Plan was issued in December 2016 to help with the complex decision making involved in siting and operating solar projects.
The plan defines for the agency the costs, benefits and processes of solar photovoltaic (PV) installation in the state, with the goal of understanding and navigating toward successful solar developments. The plan is required by state law, but just as importantly it serves to communicate the agency’s goals to the public, said Gina Campoli, a retired VTrans project manager who oversaw the plan development.
“The former [state transportation] secretary felt it was very important for the public to understand the various processes that we were using to develop projects, [including] why we were developing projects, why on Earth the Agency of Transportation was getting into the solar business, what were the processes we were going to use when we planned projects, just like we would for a transportation project,” Campoli said.
Vermont joins a growing number of state DOTs, including Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon, that are beginning to use transportation properties for siting renewable energy facilities, according to the plan. Vermont used Oregon DOT’s solar plan as a reference for their own, even commissioning the same consulting firm to prepare the plan, Campoli said. (See related case studies for Massachusetts and Oregon.)
Solar PV at VTrans
There has never been a better time for VTrans to install solar generation, according to the plan. It describes several factors driving the momentum for solar PV at VTrans. These include:
- Saving on energy costs. Systems that VTrans has already installed in Rutland and at various maintenance garages statewide are providing significant cost savings for electricity, with the project at the Rutland State Airport expected to save the agency $400,000 over 30 years.
- Installation costs are going down each year. Using VTrans staff for construction saves even more on up-front costs, a strategy the plan recommends for smaller projects.
- Aligning with state policies to consume cleaner energy, mitigate climate impacts, and build resilience. In the event of an emergency loss of power, PV systems can provide continuous power to VTrans or to feed power back to the grid, creating greater resilience.
Also, the Vermont state Comprehensive Energy Plan sets an ambitious goal of having 90 percent of the state’s energy needs—both state government operations and the private sector—met by renewable sources by 2050, Campoli said. For VTrans, that means power for street lights, traffic signals, all of the equipment in the maintenance garages, computers and office lights. “There is a ton of power we consume,” Campoli said.
The state energy planning requirement has allowed VTrans to document and better understand its energy footprint, Campoli said. Knowing the amount of energy use “justifies the investment in solar,” she said.
“There is enough sun in Vermont,” Campoli said.
How to Implement
The plan discusses how VTrans—or any other state DOT—would pursue development of more solar PV projects, steps that include assembling a project team, evaluating potential project sites, evaluating financial arrangements and ownership models, performing due diligence, and final implementation.
At VTrans, a team has already screened candidate sites at VTrans-owned properties and highway rights-of-way sites. Using tools such as VTrans’ geographic information system, the mapping office found that 124 out of 375 sites demonstrated potential for solar PV. Further screening has narrowed the list to 24 sites.
After sites are identified, VTrans must conduct analysis to determine whether the site merits continued development. Such analysis includes a study of the requirements for utility interconnection, environmental impact analysis at the state and, if necessary, federal level, and engagement with stakeholders and the public.
As a public agency, VTrans would need to investigate possible public-private partnerships including a power purchase agreement—where the agency agrees to buy electricity from the project developer—and a site license or lease agreement that grants a third party the right to install the system. Also, VTrans would need a net metering agreement with the local utility to allow the agency to receive credit for its power production, something VTrans is already doing with the solar arrays installed at maintenance garages, Campoli said.
VTrans will need to make some organizational adjustments to continue to pursue solar projects. The plan recommends having a dedicated PV projects manager and the necessary support from agency leadership.
Additionally, VTrans must consider the markets for renewable energy, federal and state financial incentives, and regulations and policies with regard to renewables, including Vermont’s own renewable energy standard.
If using federal-aid rights-of-way, state DOTs must comply with all federal requirements including ensuring that vehicle safety and the transportation purpose are not compromised, and performing environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Campoli noted that placing solar facilities within federal right-of-way increases the complexity of the project, and therefore nearly all of the projects VTrans has installed so far have been on state land. The 24 sites that VTrans has identified as having a high potential for solar PV are mostly either VTrans maintenance garages or regional airports.
According to the plan, if the project is for a public utility, siting and permitting can be managed in accordance with state’s approved utility accommodation policy (UAP) without further FHWA approval. Facility types not currently in the UAP must be referred to the FHWA division office, and projects that are strictly for private use are subject to federal right-of-way use agreement regulations.
The VTrans renewables plan is part of a state planning effort that is an interagency collaboration including the Department of Buildings and General Services and the Department of Public Service, the state’s utility regulator, Campoli said. “We’ve broken down silos on this issue,” she said.
Also, the projects that are operational are already paying dividends. “The Rutland Airport is producing way beyond our wildest expectations,” Campoli said, noting that production can exceed what is promised by PV panel manufacturers.
Additionally, more land with solar panels equals more solar power generation. However, it is important to site the solar panels in locations that consider future transportation needs, Campoli said, by making sure that the panels are not where a future storage area or parking lot will need to go. Meeting the agency’s goals for renewables will require VTrans to find additional sites, such as interchanges or cloverleaves, former quarry or gravel sites, brownfield sites, inactive or abandoned weigh stations, and park and ride areas, the plan said.
VTrans has set a renewable electricity goal for the agency of 25 percent. To meet that target, an additional 610 kW of capacity—that generates 715,000 kWh—is needed. This capacity is equivalent to an additional seven projects like the system installed in 2016 at Fair Haven Welcome Center or 36 additional 15 kW garage projects.
For these larger PV facilities, such as the 75 kW Fair Haven project within the federal right-of-way, the agency will need to establish partnerships. VTrans also should continue to coordinate with stakeholders such as the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and the various regional planning commissions to determine if VTrans sites could meet mutually beneficial goals, the plan said.