By JASON STARR | The Essex Reporter

What is expected to be the most productive solar energy farm in Vermont broke ground last week in Essex Jct. on a 15-acre piece of the village’s only working farm.

The Whitcomb family portioned off the acreage as part of a conservation easement in 2013 and developed the solar project in partnership with Burlington’s Encore Redevelopment.

The project was approved by Vermont’s Public Service Board and secured a power-purchase agreement with Green Mountain Power. It took advantage of renewable energy development incentives under the Vermont’s SPEED program, or Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development.

The solar array will be comprised of approximately 12,000 photovoltaic panels on a plateau above the Whitcomb’s remaining working farmland. Its output is estimated at 3.6 megawatts of direct current, according to Encore Redevelopment Principal Chad Farrell. That translates to 4.4 million kilowatt hours per year, Farrell said, enough to power roughly 900 homes.

“This power is being generated in a [population] center, so all of that power more than likely is going to stay right in Essex Jct.,” Farrell said. “It’s the most efficient power possible when you can generate proximal to load.”

Construction will begin off the end of South Street with fencing around the 15 acres, placement of access roads and setting up a staging area for panel assembly. By mid-August, the first of the adjustable racks will be erected. The project is expected to be functional in October.

Encore, which shepherded the project through permitting, will remain involved until the project comes online. The company sold the array to Boulder, Colo.’s, Juwi Solar, Inc. last year, and last week, JSI sold it to PSEG Solar Source of New Jersey.

JSI will remain the general contractor during construction and will operate the project for PSEG.

“It’s typical in the solar world, especially with the larger projects,” Farrell said of the sale. “There are key players on the national level with lower cost of capital that have a competitive advantage … PSEG is a large utility. They have an appetite for the ownership of assets throughout the country. They have tremendous buying capacity.”

PSEG owns solar projects in eight states: Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and now Vermont. JSI has built other large-scale solar projects in many of the same states.

“JSI is proud to build our first solar energy facility in Vermont,” company President Michael Martin said in a press release. “Given its location within the Whitcomb family property, which has continued to be a productive farming operation since its inception in 1867, this project exemplifies the opportunity to complement agricultural land use with renewable energy generation.”

JSI and PSEG form a proven partnership for the management of large-scale solar arrays, Farrell said.

“It was important to us and the Whitcombs that we had a long-term steward for the project,” he said.