Martha’s Vineyard goes solar at the speed of light

A utility scale solar array is planned for a six-acre town-owned parcel at Katama Farm in Edgartown. — File photo by Graphic by Google maps

Solar Energy projects in Tisbury and Edgartown are moving forward quickly through state and local regulatory boards, as part of the first round of town-sponsored alternative energy developments on Martha’s Vineyard.

Edgartown expects its projects to produce enough energy to power all town buildings, an expense that now totals more than $100,000 annually.

Tisbury expects its project to replace about $60,000 worth of power that it now purchases from local electric utility NSTAR annually.

The savings 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, the towns will get a credit roughly equal to the retail price of energy, that they can use to offset their electric bills.

Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs expect to add several more solar development projects in a second round of projects coordinated by the Cape and Vineyard Energy Cooperative (CVEC).

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

Site survey

Edgartown planned three separate solar arrays on undeveloped, town-owned property, and expects to save more than $8 million over the 20-year life cycle of the three sites.

One parcel is off Mattakesset Way, currently farmed under an agreement with the town by the FARM Institute. The town’s planning board and conservation commission have issued all necessary permits.The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has also signed off.

Since that site is home to two rare species protected under the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), the town is negotiating a mitigation plan that would set aside other town-owned land for permanent habitat.

The second site is between Edgewood Drive and Briarwood Drive near a town well, known as the Nunnepog Well. The Edgartown planning board and the DEP have issued permits. Current plans call for the developer to reduce the size of that installation slightly, to avoid encroaching on protected habitat.

A third site, off Pennywise Path behind the Morgan Woods housing development, will not be developed as planned, because the site is entirely within the boundaries of protected habitat designated by NHESP.

Instead, Edgartown shifted its focus to the town’s capped landfill, and is working its way through the permitting and permission process for that site. The site presents challenges, because according to the developer, solar panels will only be effective on the flat upper part of the capped landfill. Much of the steep sides have too little exposure to the sun. Both the state and the town own parts of the property, further complicating negotiations.

Tisbury plans a solar array at the site of its old landfill off State Road. The solar photovoltaic system will be constructed on 10 acres of town land near the Park and Ride lot, a project that mirrors those under way in many Massachusetts towns, to use capped landfills.

“Putting solar panels on them is one of the only acceptable uses of that land,” said Bill Straw, Tisbury’s representative to CVEC, the municipal cooperative. “Generally speaking, everything is going well.”

In both towns, the local and state permitting process is almost complete. “Each town and the DEP have been very proactive in the permitting process,” said Ron Collins, CVEC project manager for the solar developments on the Island.

The next step may prove to be the most difficult issue. CVEC is working with NSTAR to determine whether infrastructure improvements are needed to connect the solar developments to the power grid. NSTAR has issued tentative approval to move forward with the Nunnepog Well site in Edgartown. The company is still conducting analysis of the other sites. Once those issues are resolved, construction can begin.

Developing solar

Last April, CVEC completed a long and complicated competitive bidding process by awarding a contract for solar projects in Edgartown, Tisbury, and five Cape Cod towns to American Capital Energy.

Based in North Chelmsford, the privately held company is among the largest solar energy developers in the United States. According to company documents, American Capital Energy managed 20 percent of all the utility-scale solar arrays in the United States in 2010.

As part of its agreement, American Capital Energy has committed to advertising locally for installation and maintenance subcontractors and expects to employ 500 full-time workers in all seven towns covered under the first round of solar development. The company could not say when construction might begin, but officials in Tisbury and Edgartown say they hope that construction will be completed by the end of 2012.

Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs are included in the second round of development, which will construct primarily rooftop solar panel installations.

Tisbury plans solar panels on the Department of Public Works roof, and in an area at the end of Holmes Hole Road, known as the old septage dumping ground.

Oak Bluffs hopes to put solar panels on the roof of its library on Pacific Avenue, and at its wastewater treatment plant off Pennsylvania Avenue.

West Tisbury plans to install a solar array on its capped landfill.

The second round of projects in the three Island towns are part of a group of more than 100 separate projects in 15 Cape and Vineyard Towns. Eleven vendors responded to a request for proposal from CVEC. The cooperative is currently negotiating with those vendors, and expects to award a contract this spring.

Energy incentives

Federal and state governments, in an effort to encourage production of clean energy and reduce dependence on oil, have established incentives for individuals, municipalities, and developers to build alternative energy facilities.

Several of these tax incentives are temporary, and limited, a development that created a race among Massachusetts towns to build solar energy facilities.

At the top of the list are a federal tax credit that would offset 30 percent of the cost of design and construction for qualifying energy facilities, and a new provision that allows accelerated depreciation of hardware.

Massachusetts has also established substantial incentives. Developers will earn solar renewable energy credits (REC) for establishing solar-generation capacity. The credits are currently valued at a minimum of 30 cents per kilowatt-hour.

At that rate, a 1 megawatt solar facility operating at the capacity anticipated for The Farm Institute site in Edgartown would generate solar energy credits worth about $455,000.

A host of other loans programs, grants, and performance incentives could also lower a developer’s costs.

No review

None of the projects has been referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact (DRI). Though the commission has produced several hundred pages of proposed regulation for wind turbines, the powerful regional planning and permitting agency has focused little attention on solar development.

The DRI checklist, a complex list of conditions that defines whether a project should be referred to the MVC, includes several provisions intended to preserve agricultural land, but none appear to apply to the Katama solar development, according to MVC executive director Mark London.

The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society and several Edgartown residents have raised questions about the environmental and aesthetic impact of the Katama site, which would be located on approximately six acres of prime farm land. It is part of a 20-acre parcel the town retained rights to use, when it purchased the farm land more than three decades ago.

As part of a new agreement with the FARM Institute, the town gave up its rights to the remaining 14 acres, so that it can be used for farming. Town officials say the agreement results in a net gain of agricultural land at the site.

In Edgartown, special town meeting voters overwhelmingly defeated a measure to limit solar development on farm land.