MIDDLEBORO – Last month, selectmen seeking to launch some new “green energy” initiatives for the town voted to send three suggestions for potential actions to the Middleborough Gas and Electric Commission, overseers of the municipal power company.
The biggest and boldest of the proposals was a plan to lease four parcels of vacant town land for a massive “shared community solar energy farm” that would produce as much as 9.0 megawatts of clean energy per year. As part of the project, potential bidders seeking to build and operate the solar energy farm would also provide solar panel installations on a variety of municipal buildings, generating more low-cost power available to both the municipality and town residents.
The proposal, as outlined in a draft RFP (request for proposals) presented to the Gas and Electric Commission at a July 19 meeting by Assistant to the Town Manager Evan Delillo, was debated at length by commissioners and finally assigned to a subcommittee for further study.
The biggest problem with the proposal, commissioners and G & E General Manager Jackie Crowley explained, is that the municipal utility company almost certainly doesn’t have the infrastructure capacity to handle the addition of that much power to the local grid.
The utility is in the process of reviewing the recent impact of new commercial solar projects around town which all together are generating about eight megawatts of solar power. Quite a bit of study would be needed to determine exactly what local grid upgrades would be needed to get another nine megawatts of power from the four town-owned sites off Chestnut and Cross Streets where the community solar project is being proposed, Crowley advised commissioners at the July 19 meeting.
G & E Electric Division Manager Bill Taylor said that new, bigger power lines and transformers would be needed to serve the large-scale solar arrays generating that much electricity. The possibility of a new substation would have to be assessed as well, with total infrastructure upgrades costing anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million, he estimated.
With a deadline for issuing RFPs for the community solar farm only weeks away, utility management team members suggested it would be impossible to come up with accurate upgrade estimates in such a short time. Commissioners also questioned some of the financial figures in Delillo’s presentation, saying they were not entirely accurate, and the project financials had to be revamped to include likely infrastructure improvement costs.
Commissioner Lincoln Andrews said his board liked “the general idea” of a large-scale solar installation, but felt there were too many unanswered questions for a quick vote of support for the project. “There are hurdles to be overcome” before the plan can move forward, he suggested.
Commissioner Jack Healey also felt the plan needed more debate, and more input from the utility’s management team. “This is an opportunity to move forward together” with selectmen, the town manager’s office, and the Green Energy Committee to develop a better proposal for the town, he told Delillo.
“Continue to work with us… to see what we can do about (more) solar,” Healey suggested. Other commissioners agreed that the Green Energy Committee should be involved in the continuing discussions of solar power options.
At that point, G & E Comissioners recommended the RFP not be issued by an Aug. 2 deadline sought so the project could be contracted and built in time to qualify for state and federal incentives. Instead, they sent the proposal to a “solar subcommittee” for further study; a second vote added a possible G & E-funded and owned solar facility to the solar power proposals to be investigated.
When commissioners were pressed for a vote of “non-opposition” that would allow the project to stay alive for the time being, Crowley advised against it. The proposed facility was just “too large” for the utility to handle its output at present, she said.
“This is going to take a lot of analysis, and I’m not sure it’s going to be in the best interests of our ratepayers,” Crowley said of the “shared” community solar plan. Among the long-range alternatives to be studied is the possibility of the utility borrowing the funds needed to build its own solar arrays, and operating the facility itself, she suggested.
While Delillo said the lack of an endorsement for the community shared solar project was disappointing, he would continue working on alternatives for future consideration by selectmen and commissioners.
A big potential advantage of a leased “community solar” site operated by a private developer is that the town would pre-agree to buy half of the low-priced electrical output for municipal use; residents would have the option of signing up to buy a share of the other half of the available power, Delillo explained.
Commissioners were not convinced they should support the concept, even if the potential operator agreed to underwrite most of the infrastructure costs needed to bring the solar power into the grid.
G & E Commission Chair Daniel Farley said his board was very willing to work with the town manager’s office on proposed green energy initiatives, but noted that any such projects would have to be “a benefit to the ratepayers” to get the commission’s support.
For example, the commission and its general manager liked the selectmen-endorsed idea of offering a Green Energy Option on utility bills which would give residents the ability to pay an additional tenth of a cent ($0.001) per kilowatt hour to help the utility finance green energy projects.
Crowley suggested consideration of an alternative – a mandatory .005 cent per kwh “smart energy” fee on utility bills to build a green initiative fund. Adding a few dollars per month to the average bill, the fee could generate $350,000 per year in revenues, she indicated.
The general manager said she would develop a formal proposal based on that idea for the commission to consider at a future meeting.
The third initiative, outlined in selectmen’s letter to the Gas and Electric Commissioners suggesting the creation of a new net-metering policy for non-residential customers, allowing businesses producing solar power to be spared system support costs and distribution fees, was flatly rejected by the commission.
Crowley said the larger solar power producers (over 10 kw) would still be using the local power grid, so their exempted system support fees would only have to be absorbed by residential customers and other utility users. The “free” system access could be very “damaging” to many other customers, she suggested before the negative vote was cast.
Not even on the table for the recent series of meetings was the possibility of exploring hydroelectric power generating options. The idea was mentioned as a potential use of the smart energy fees that could be collected to promote green energy projects… to fund a hydropower feasibility study.
That is an option the town has explored before, as a hydropower generator was once installed at the dam next to the Wareham Street bridge over the Nemasket River that the nearby G & E operations facility overlooks. The river’s current has powered a variety of water-driven mills at the site over the centuries.
“I believe it was taken out of commission by 1916,” Crowley said of the hydropower generator that once stood beside the bridge. With today’s state and federal regulations, “it would take a lot of research” to come up with a workable plan for a new hydropower facility, and that’s apparently on the long list of things to do for the G & E management team.
Meanwhile, the town continues to make progress on green energy initiatives, started years ago when the G & E Commission supported the town’s bid for a grant that brought 12 leased electric vehicles to town for municipal use “for next to nothing,” Delillo noted.
The public utility is continuing its campaign to convert all the town’s streetlights to low-voltage LED fixtures in Fiscal Year 2018, just underway. The utility also offers a variety of conservation and weatherization programs aimed at reducing the town’s collective energy consumption.
And someday soon, Delillo hopes, the town will qualify for Green Community status, unlocking an annual source of grant funds for even more conservation and energy-reduction initiatives for the town to pursue.
“Very soon, we’ll have all five of the criteria needed to be certified as a Green Community,” Delillo notes. A firm commitment to producing more local solar power is just one step along the way to Middleborough becoming a greener, cleaner place.