Airport Fitness & Tennis goes solar

Being a good citizen is good business.

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Connie McHugh, and Bill Bennett stand in front of the Airport Fitness center, where solar panels were recently installed. — Stacey Rupolo

Updated Feb. 2, 4:40 pm

Soon Eversource will dig a trench from the road to the Airport Fitness & Tennis center to tie 341 newly installed solar panels into the grid. It’s been a long time coming.

Connie McHugh, owner of Airport Fitness, began the solar conversion process in October of 2015. The facility is a big old barn of a place — there are 24,000 square feet of tennis courts, and the health club is close to 15,000 square feet. Most days the lights are on from 6 am to 10 pm, and the electric bill runs about $2,500 a month. The prospect of eventually cutting the cord from her electric bill was certainly an incentive to make the switch, but it was not Ms. McHugh’s primary motivation.

“Carbon levels are unacceptable today,” she said in an interview with The Times at her office at the center. “We have to act immediately. I love the idea of solar because you’re not disturbing anything, it’s not like on wind farms where you’re disturbing the ocean life. Plus, we have this huge south-facing roof … and I firmly believe that being a good citizen is good business.”

Ms. McHugh did her homework on solar technology, and paused a bit because the solar installation was a major investment for her business, and with the cost of solar panels trending down, they could possibly cost half as much in a couple of years; she didn’t want to invest too early. But two years ago she felt that the technology seemed to have plateaued for a while, and she decided to make the move.

But first she had to make sure her building could support the load of a solar array on her roof. The building was built in 1996 by contractor John Folino. It was constructed of steel, and Mr. Folino assured her that it would have no problem supporting the solar panels.

Ms. McHugh sent an RFP to four different solar-construction companies. “Most of the bidders presented me with very similar panels,” she said. “I got the highest-end [panels] I could get with the money I had. They are about eight on a scale of 10.” in the end she decided to go with Bennett Electric, which had been installing solar since 1990 — Bennett proposed, engineered and installed South Mountain’s first system at a project in Aquinnah.

Now came the permitting process, which was made all the more complicated because of the club’s proximity to the airport. “The first thing we had to do,” said Bill Bennett, owner of Bennett Electric, “was to get approval from Sandia National Laboratories.” Sandia is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC). “They do computer-generated modeling for airports,” said Mr. Bennett. “They had to get an analysis of the effect of the glare from the panels on the planes, which is an FAA requirement.”

Bennett Electric then continued to shepherd the project through the approval process, going in turn to the FAA, MassDOT, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, and finally, had to get a building permit from the town of West Tisbury. In all, the approval process took about a year.

“We also had to look at the facility to see if the electrical service could accommodate the power being generated by solar,” said Mr. Bennett.

“With solar, basically all of a building’s power is being generated in a short period of time [daylight hours], but it’s still running and using power outside of that time period. The electrical service has to accommodate the excess power that will be used when the sun isn’t up.” Airport Fitness had to be upgraded.

Tax and energy credits make converting to solar power more affordable. There is a 30 percent federal investment tax credit on any cost associated with solar energy, and solar qualifies for accelerated depreciation, meaning the investment can be depreciated in five years. There are also SRECs (solar renewable energy credits) that are provided by the utility company based on the amount of megawatt (MW) hours produced — the larger the system, the more credits you earn. The Tennis & Fitness center solar array can generate 113 kW, and will produce 154 MW hours annually; Mr. Bennett estimates that the SRECs could easily pay for around two-thirds of the installation.

Airport Fitness was fortunate because they were able to take advantage of the SREC 2 program just before it expired in early January. (It was subsequently extended through the end of 2017.)  “If I had missed SREC 2, I might not have done it,” said Ms. McHugh. There will most likely be a new refund program, but probably it will not be as generous as SREC 2 — just as SREC 2 was not as generous as SREC 1. Details have yet to be announced.

“For homes, anything under 25 kW, SRECs are still in force until a new program comes in,” said Mr. Bennett. “You still have a small window, and you’ll probably never have anything better.”

The total cost for the installation came to something less than $400,000, and for this Ms. McHugh obtained a straightforward commercial loan from Edgartown National Bank.

In addition to going solar, the center also took the opportunity to install all LED lighting throughout the facility. “The court lights cost $18,000 to replace,” said Ms. McHugh. “There’s a 36-foot-high ceiling there, so we had to hire a lift to install the bulbs. They say they’re good for six years, and they should reduce our electric by about 40 percent.”

Mr. Bennett said that the panels should last for about 50 years, and that the breakeven point, once you factor in the tax credits and state incentives (SRECS) should be between four and five years. And between the solar panels and the LED lighting, Airport Fitness should be able to be net-zero or better, meaning that they would not have to pay for electric — they would generate a surplus and get money back.

In addition to electricity, the center uses propane and natural gas for heat and hot water, but by converting to electric heat pumps, Mr. Bennett said, they could do away with all utility charges.

“With Airport Fitness, they will be completely green,” said Mr. Bennett, “which is pretty amazing considering what a large facility they have. They’ve got workout machines, saunas, lights; it’s all going to run off solar.

“Also, there are few moving parts, which means that solar-panel maintenance is only cleaning the air filters and making sure the cooling fans are working. This puts maintenance costs at nearly zero.

“But here’s the bottom line: Connie is one of the pioneers of the business world. She said no to coal and oil.”