Solar project heats up in Oak Bluffs

MVC to review proposed solar array on water district property.

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A solar array erected on the Tisbury landfill. — File photo by Michael Cummo

A proposed Solar Energy System (SES) that could reduce the Oak Bluffs Water District electric bill by 40 percent, and also potentially cut the bill for town buildings and for consumers, will be reviewed at a public hearing at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) on Thursday night.

Boston-based BlueWave Capital, in partnership with SunEdison, is proposing to install a $6 million SES on a 45-acre parcel on the west side of Barnes Road, about a half-mile from the roundabout. Twenty acres of wooded area would have to be cleared to accommodate the 4.17 acres of solar panels, which would generate a little over 3 megawatts of electricity a year.

One megawatt can power about 1,200 houses for a year in Massachusetts, according to the Solar Energies Industry Association. Massachusetts ranks sixth in the country in installed solar capacity, with 944 megawatts currently being produced.

“It takes a lot of electricity to get water out of the ground,” Kevin Johnson, superintendent of the Oak Bluffs Water District (OBWD) told The Times in an interview at his office. There are three wells in the Lagoon Pond Watershed on the parcel. Mr. Johnson said the idea for an SES on OBWD well sites has been kicking around for about 10 years. “There’s nothing else you can do with that land,” he said. “This project won’t pollute the environment; it reduces our bill; it cuts costs for town buildings, and for residents, at no cost to the town. It’s a win-win.”

The solar panels will be three to seven and a half feet above the ground. A six-foot-high fence is proposed around the facility, which would operate 24/7. The facility would not be manned, but be monitored from offsite. No lighting has been proposed, and the noise that would be created by the SES is described as minimal.

“The developer takes on all the cost to build and operate the project,” Chad Laurent, consultant with Boston-based Meister Group, told The Times. “The the Water District is is agreeing to a 20 year contract to pay for the net metering credits, essentially the electricity, which they will get at a discounted rate—a 40 percent discount at today’s prices. They’re locking in their rate for the next 20 years.”

Net metering allows customers to receive credits for any electricity they generate but do not use. Virtual net metering credits, which will be offered as part of the OBWD array, can be used at an offsite location, such as a town building, or residence. Mr. Laurent said the SES will be large enough to serve the Water District’s needs with potentially enough electricity left over to power town buildings and homes of Eversource customers in Southeastern Massachusetts.

“The town of Oak Bluffs could be an additional off-taker, and it could sign a power purchase agreement with BlueWave and SunEdison and get discounted electricity to different town electric accounts,” he said. “A community solar project would allow those credits to be assigned to individual residences,” Mr. Laurent said a homeowner could sign an agreement with BlueWave and would receive 10 to 15 percent discount by signing on with community solar. “A lot of people can benefit from this,” he said.

The cost savings wouldn’t lower OBWD bills to consumers, but would defray costs of upcoming maintenance, which are considerable. Mr. Johnson said over the next 16 years, he anticipates the Water District will need to do approximately $17.5 million of maintenance work — replacing water mains and well shafts, refurbishing pump motors, and replacing scrubber screens. The $17.5 million does not include construction of two additional wells, which will cost between $7 and $8 million each. An additional storage tank, due by 2032, will cost approximately $4 million.

Not everyone is gung-ho on the project.

Abutters from the Little Pond subdivision have expressed concern about the aesthetics of the array, as well as concerns that the project will impede access to their neighborhood. Mr. Johnson said that Little Pond Road residents stand to benefit from the project because planned road improvements will allow better access for emergency vehicles.

Time will be a factor in maximizing the benefit of the OBWD solar array. On March 1, 2015, National Grid declared the solar net metering cap had been reached, and stopped buying solar power produced by public and private entities. At the statehouse in Boston this week, environmental and solar advocates announced that they are embarking on a month-long campaign to mark the year that has elapsed since National Grid’s announcement.

Mr. Laurent explained there is still a potential market for the energy produced by the OBWD. “The National Grid is not the only purchaser of net metering caps,” he told The Times on Wednesday afternoon. “The net metering cap has been reached in National Grid territory, but not yet with Eversource.” Mr. Laurent said as of today, there are 71 megawatts of capacity remaining for public entities, and 31.6 megawatts for private entities, with Eversource. But once those quotas are reached, there is no guarantee, short of legislative changes on Beacon Hill, that the credits will have substantial value. “If that cap were to fill, it could affect the rate at which the project could benefit the Water District and the town,” he said.

Still, if the project moves forward in a timely fashion, the OBWD and the town stand to benefit. “There’s dozens of communities in Massachusetts that have this arrangement, because it makes so much sense,” Mr. Laurent said, citing New Bedford, Andover, Boston, and several colleges and universities as examples.

Mr. Laurent said that BlueWave makes its profit by sale of the net metering credits, the solar renewable energy certificate value, and the federal tax credit: “They take all the risk, permitting the project, building the project, and they are able to take advantage of the federal tax credit because nonprofits and municipalities don’t pay any taxes, so they can’t realize that federal tax credit — so it’s beneficial for municipalities for someone else to own the project. When a developer adds up the tax credit, the income from the sale of the net metering credits, and the solar renewable energy certificates, if it looks like a viable deal, they move on the project. I don’t know their return, but they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t benefit them; it also benefits the town and the ratepayers.”

It appeared that the solar project was on the fast track after the Oak Bluffs Planning Board bestowed its unanimous approval in late January. But Oak Bluffs building inspector Mark Barbadoro referred the project to the MVC, and on Feb. 4, the MVC overwhelmingly voted to review the project as a development of regional impact (DRI), in large part because the proposed parcel abuts land owned by Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, as well as the State Forest, the groundwater protection district of critical planning concern (DCPC) in Tisbury, and the Greenlands Water Resource Protection DCPC in West Tisbury.

Screening the solar array from view along a stretch of the bike path was also a stated concern of the MVC.

OBPB chairman Brian Packish disagrees with the necessity of the DRI hearing. He said that current solar zoning bylaws, which were passed at town meeting in 2015, were sufficient for reviewing the project. The purpose of the wide-ranging bylaws are “to promote the use of solar energy by providing standards for the placement, design, construction, operation, monitoring, modification, and removal of such installations that address public safety [and] minimize impacts on scenic, natural, and historic resources, and to provide adequate financial assurance for the eventual decommissioning of such installations.”

“I think the general feeling is that you already have to go to the [OBPB] and the Zoning Board of Appeals for site-plan review,” Mr. Packish said. “It seems like a lot of duplicate process. We have bylaws in place and multiple layers of review, and it still has to go to the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) as well.”

“We are going to try to move on this as expeditiously as possible,” MVC executive director Adam Turner told The Times in an email.

The Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) has yet to sign off on the project. In preliminary hearings, NHESP has encouraged BlueWave to consider less intrusive plans that would reduce the impact on state-listed species and their habitats.

In a conversation with The Times on Monday, Jesse Leddick, endangered species review biologist for the NHESP, said his agency has received preliminary plants but not an official filing, from BlueWave. “Generally speaking, lepidoptera, butterflies and moths, are the species of the most concern in this area,” he said. “There are species endemic to the Cape and Islands that depend on a very specific habitat.” Mr. Leddick said two species currently on the “threatened” list are the barrens dagger moth and the faded gray geometer.