Chilmark considers landfill solar plant, but skeptically


Chilmark selectmen on Tuesday reviewed a proposal from Vineyard Power Solar LLC (VPS), an Island-based energy cooperative, to build a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array at the town landfill off Tabor House Road. The installation could eventually supply approximately 70 percent of the town’s energy needs, its supporters said.

VPS, an affiliate of Vineyard Power, will design, construct and operate the photovoltaic (PV) array, which will require approximately 20,000 square feet of southern exposure at the capped landfill.

According to the proposal submitted to the town April 22, the array could offset 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year, the equivalent of emissions from eight cars.

The estimated cost of the project is $635,000, of which $340,000 would be provided by investors and $295,000 would be borrowed from local banks or from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Utility Service at favorable rates.

The town would enter a 10-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Vineyard Solar, allowing it to buy electricity at a discounted wholesale rate. “The underlying principle of the PPA is that the town of Chilmark will be kept cost-neutral,” the proposal said.

The town would also, under the proposal, enter into a 10-year renewable lease agreement with Vineyard Solar for the land upon which the PV system is built and also provide easements needed for the interconnecting cabling and access.

Vineyard Solar would retain ownership of the array for a minimum of 10 years, after which the town would have the option of buying the system from the company at fair market value or continuing, as the host, to receive annual rent for leasing the land on which the array is located.

The proposal stipulates the payments would be deferred until the end of the 10-year operating period. At that time, the sum of the rent could be either used to offset the purchase of the system or paid back to the town, if the purchase option is declined.

At the annual town meeting last month, voters agreed to explore the concept of building a solar array at the town landfill and authorized the selectmen to lease the site “if it is feasible and in the financial interest of the town.”

At their regular meeting Tuesday, selectmen questioned if the proposal was in the best financial interest of the town. “It says the town of Chilmark will be kept cost-neutral, so it is not a financial benefit and not a cost,” said selectman chairman Frank Fenner, opening the discussion.

“I guess my question is if it costs $635,000, and in ten years we charge $1,000 a year [in rent], it doesn’t seem too much of a benefit to get $10,000 off of $635,000 . . . I realize this is just a draft, but there has to be more of a benefit to the town,” he added.

Selectman Warren Doty, who spearheaded efforts to place the solar question on the town meeting warrant, suggested the agreement be structured so the town can purchase the array after ten years at a minimal cost.

“My thought was at the end of the lease period we should be able to acquire the facility for a very small amount, like $100 or $1, and this developer will have made their profit by that time. So the benefit for the town of Chilmark will come in years 11 through 25,” he said.

Mr. Doty also said the town should wait before choosing a developer and recommended the town draft a request for proposals (RFP) to try and bring other interested parties into the fold.

“This is one proposal. We have received several e-mails from other companies that have said they are interested in doing this, and they have done it in other places. So if we put out an RFP, we will get several, and I think we should do that — the sooner the better,” he said.

Mr. Fenner questioned if the proposal from Vineyard Solar would work at the landfill, noting the town may use a portion of the landfill for a parking lot in the future, if necessary.

“They are estimating it is about 25,000 square feet. Where is there 25,000 square feet they could use? The best place for us would obviously be the banks, because the center has already been engineered for a parking lot, should we need that,” he said.

He also raised safety concerns.

“Maybe I am more conscious because of the rain we just had . . . but you hear all the time in California where they have mudslides, and really the landfill is a big mass with just rubber membrane on it with a foot or two of soil. What happens when you start breaking that up with heavy masses and something that will have all these vibrations because of the wind?” he said.

Mr. Carroll said Vineyard Solar submitted engineering plans from other solar arrays built on landfills that showed an approximately one-foot footing, with six inches buried below the surface, which provided adequate support.

“The Department of Environmental Protection has validated certain engineering approaches to do it, and they are eager to push it,” he said.

Mr. Carroll recommended selectmen appoint a committee to explore the finances of the project and possibly draft an RFP. “It will take a lot of work, not just a few months, to really look at this. It really needs to be financially feasible for the town, not just a feel good project,” he said.

“If we put together the right RFP, you could solicit a company that might actually give us money,” he added. “There is nothing wrong with their proposal . . . but they are trying to it for the entire Island as part of an Island energy plan. There might be stuff that’s not in our best interest.”

Mr. Doty said the town doesn’t necessarily have to make money off the project.

“I do think it’s in our best interest to have a large solar installation, even if it doesn’t make the town money, just the fact that we made a commitment to take an area and turn it into a solar array, it means we will get solar energy for our town,” he said.

Selectmen unanimously voted to authorize Mr. Carroll to appoint a three member committee to start drafting an RFP.