In fields off Watcha Road in Edgartown, a site once envisioned as a neighborhood of 11 affordable homes called Cozy Hearth, rows and rows of solar panels now glimmer. Instead of the sounds of children at play, on sunny days there is a strong hum in the air as machines convert direct current produced from solar energy into alternating current that goes into the electrical grid.
The private solar energy project by Bill Bennett, an Island electrical contractor, includes two arrays with 1,250 solar panels apiece, on two one-acre parcels, capable of an annual production of 250,000 watts each.
Ten years ago Mr. Bennett, who owns Bennett Electric in Vineyard Haven, and some of his employees, friends, and family members pooled resources to purchase the Watcha Road site, which included three parcels totaling almost 11 acres. Their unique proposal to build 11 affordable houses there received approval from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, with many conditions, after a long public hearing process in which it encountered fierce opposition from abutters.
Subsequent review and additional conditions imposed by the Edgartown Zoning Board of Appeals ultimately rendered the project economically unfeasible. Although Mr. Bennett and the not-for-profit Cozy Hearth Corporation (CHC) won an appeal to have the ZBA’s decision overturned in court, they gave up in 2009 after nearly three years of legal wrangling and the Edgartown ZBA’s third appeal. At that time Mr. Bennett said the cost of carrying the mortgage was $6,000 a month, and that the CHC participants wanted out. He put the property on the market as three parcels in the fall of 2009.
“I tried to sell the land, but no one wanted to buy it,” Mr. Bennett told The Times in an interview at the Watcha Road site last week.
As the owner of Bennett Electric in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Bennett has been involved in the installation of solar energy systems in Island homes over the past 20 years. Last year, while looking at the funding incentives available for solar projects, he said it occurred to him that CHC could put its unsold property to good use.
Mr. Bennett put together a proposal and took it to Edgartown National Bank vice president Mary Maida, who helped him arrange the financing to bring the project to fruition. It actually includes three components — the two projects on an acre each off Watcha Road and a third project on a one-acre site he leased at Whippoorwill Farm on Old County Road in Oak Bluffs from owner Andrew Woodruff.
Unlike the Cozy Hearth affordable housing proposal, Mr. Bennett said the abutters did not oppose the solar project. “They were great; they came over and they liked the idea, and they were excited about having it,” he said. And since its completion, a few have even told him they like the way it looks. “Some of the neighbors said, ‘I look out over the field, and it glimmers like the water.'”
Mr. Bennett said construction on Watcha Road began in early March 2012 and was finished for the most part by July. Some students from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) in environmental science teacher Louis Hall’s classes visited the site and helped install some of the panels last spring. All three solar facilities began production on November 20.
Mr. Bennett said the project specifications called for panels that would withstand winds of 120 miles per hour, and also took into consideration factors such as soil conditions and snow loading. They are spaced about 2 meters apart and the poles that support them go about five feet into the ground. The panels are expected to last for 30 years.
How the finances work
Each project cost about $1.1 million. Mr. Bennett said he started the permitting process in November 2011, in order to take advantage of a government incentive that offered a cash grant, which was due to be changed to a tax credit instead for projects started in 2012.
Mr. Bennett said he had to spend the money on the project upfront, but would be reimbursed for 30 percent of the cost of design and construction. There also was a depreciation incentive that allowed him to recover the cost of his equipment through accelerated depreciation schedules. The panels are expected to last for 30 years.
Massachusetts has also established substantial incentives. Developers earn solar renewable energy credits (SREC) for establishing solar-generation capacity. Also, the state’s net metering laws allow certain renewable energy generating facilities to allocate the credits to customers for credit on their future energy bills.
The monetary savings for the energy produced come in the form of a credit from the utility company. Power produced by the solar arrays goes directly into the regional electric grid, along with energy generated by oil, coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear plants.
Later, Mr. Bennett will get a credit from NSTAR roughly equal to the retail price of energy, that he can sell to his customers. They in turn can use the credits to offset their electric bills.
“When you’re making power, you get renewable energy credits, which aren’t the power itself, so you get paid in renewable energy credits and you sell the power, so you kind of get double-duty,” Mr. Bennett explained. “And that’s what makes this doable.”
The SREC are what make solar project advantageous for developers, he added. “Unless you can get somebody to pay you something for them, they’re worthless,” he said. “I could have a million of them in my account, and that doesn’t mean anything. But I can assign my credits to anybody that has an NSTAR bill that is located in the southeastern Massachusetts district, which goes from Westport out to Provincetown, almost as far as Brockton.”
Mr. Bennett’s customers currently include the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and Martha’s Vineyard YMCA, which receive a discounted rate as nonprofit organizations, and also the Edgartown National Bank and Tisbury Farm Market. They purchase utility credits Mr. Bennett receives from NSTAR for the solar energy his projects generate to offset their electricity costs from NSTAR.
Mr. Bennett offered a simplified explanation how the pricing works, using the Charter School in a hypothetical example.
“Let’s say I had 1,000 credits in my account from what the solar array produced and I’m transferring 100 percent of those credits to the Charter School,” Mr. Bennett said. “If they have a $1,000 bill from NSTAR, they would owe NSTAR zero.
And let’s make believe I gave them a 10 percent discount. They would then pay me $900 for my transferring the credits to them and save $100 in doing so. Whatever the discount rate is, that’s how it works.”
A new lease on light
On a bright sunny day last Thursday, December 13, Mr. Bennett, Ms. Maida, YMCA financial development director Sarah Soushek, Tisbury Farm Market owner Elio Silva, and a Charter School delegation including students, Mr. Hall, and development director Paul Karasik, met at the Watcha Road site to celebrate the project’s completion.
“By your committing to purchase the power made by this project, you made it possible,” Mr. Bennett told everyone.
In an email in response to questions emailed from The Times, Mr. Karasik said the Charter School’s decision to “go green” was made by MVPCS administration in March 2012 in response to a proposal from Mr. Bennett, who is the parent of a former student and has been the school’s electrician since 1996. The Charter School hopes to save 10-15 percent on electricity costs, Mr. Karasik said. The term is unlimited and can be cancelled at any time.
“We believe that we are the first school in the state, public or private, to go fully green,” he said in his email.
With the enticing incentives for solar projects, they have gained in popularity and number on Martha’s Vineyard. Edgartown, Tisbury, and West Tisbury have all entered into agreements with the Cape and Vineyard Electrical Cooperative (CVEC) to build solar arrays on town land at no cost to the towns, and to run the facilities for 20 years in exchange for tax breaks and incentives from the state. In a divided vote, the West Tisbury selectmen voted on December 5 to enter into an agreement with CVEC to allow the cooperative to build a photovoltaic array at the town landfill off Old Stage Road.
Over the past year Vineyard Power switched its focus from wind energy to solar, with the creation of Vineyard Power Solar (VPS).
The solar subsidiary recently financed and leased space in the Cronig’s Market parking lot in Vineyard Haven where three solar canopies have been installed.