Edgartown cashes in on $8 million of green energy

This town-owned land in Edgartown (shaded black) is one of three sites on which solar electrical energy generating facilities will be built. — Photo courtesy of google maps

Edgartown selectmen signed agreements Monday with the Cape and Vineyard Energy Cooperative (CVEC) to build three large-scale solar energy facilities. The energy produced will save the town more than $8 million in electricity costs over the next 20 years, according to energy committee chairman Kitt Johnson.

Mr. Johnson said the solar arrays will produce 4.5 megawatts of electricity at peak production, more than enough to power all town buildings. The excess power will be sold to the local public utility at market rate.

“Based on fairly conservative projections,” Mr. Johnson said, “this will be worth a net — after everything is covered and paid for — of $8.1 million over the 20 years.”

For the purpose of estimating costs, developers assume the solar equipment has a lifespan of 20 years, though the solar arrays could last longer. At the end of the 20-year contract term, the solar arrays could be decommissioned, or the town could assume ownership.

“It’s an amazing step for the town of Edgartown,” chairman Art Smadbeck said. “Small as we are, we’re making that first step toward green energy. The solar energy, the electricity that is going to be produced, is going to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s our little thing we’re doing to help the environment.”

The board thanked Mr. Johnson, town administrator Pam Dolby, and conservation agent Jane Varkonda for guiding the complex project through many hurdles. Ms. Dolby said when first presented with the project, it sounded too good to be true.

“I never really thought this would end up being a success,” Ms. Dolby said. “This is awesome.”

The town-owned land where the town intends to build the facilities totals about 20 acres. One site is a portion of Katama Farm off Mattakesset Way, land now farmed under an agreement with the town by The FARM Institute. Another site is off Pennywise Path behind the Morgan Woods housing development, and the third site is between Edgewood Drive and Briarwood Drive near a town well. Plans include plantings to screen the facilities from nearby homes or roadways.

CVEC will now contract with American Capital Energy, on behalf of Edgartown, Tisbury, and six Cape Cod towns, to build the solar facilities. That company was the winning bidder in an exhaustive public bid process managed by CVEC. Mr. Johnson said it will take about six months for the company to get all its permits in place, and construction of solar panel arrays will begin sometime next year on three town-owned sites. He said the facilities should be complete by November 2012.

Local taxpayers will not fund any development costs. The agreements with CVEC call for the developer to pay all the cost of building, maintaining, and decommissioning the equipment. Ace Capital Energy estimates the cost of building the three Edgartown facilities at $20 million. The company will recoup its costs in part through lucrative federal and state energy incentives, and by selling energy credits to Massachusetts utilities, which must certify that at least five percent of the energy they distribute comes from renewable resources.

While the cost savings to local taxpayers is enormous, and although the facilities will produce clean energy, projects like these are coming under increasing scrutiny for the large government subsidies, the profits they could generate for private developers, and the costs passed on to other consumers. Also drawing attention are development issues, including aesthetics and the loss of agricultural land, where the solar installations will be sited.