Tisbury solar project progress hinges on NSTAR agreement

— Photo by Google Maps

Tisbury’s solar energy project through the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC) has not seen the light of day yet. The delay is due to the lack of an interconnection agreement still being worked out between Tisbury and NSTAR to hook up the solar array to the power grid, according to Bill Straw, the town’s CVEC representative.

Mr. Straw told The Times in a recent phone conversation that he is concerned about the economic impacts of the delay. “Every month that goes by that we don’t have solar panels on the ground, the town of Tisbury is losing money,” he said.

In an email dated September 14, in response to questions emailed from The Times, NSTAR spokesman Michael Durand said that NSTAR has completed the review and study for the project after meeting with CVEC in June.

“We determined no upgrades are needed except the installation of their electric service and a protective device (called a recloser) to trip the project off-line if necessary,” Mr. Durand said. “The project is currently in the design stage in our engineering area, with an anticipated completion date of October 31. Once complete, we’ll send them an interconnection service agreement.”

Mr. Durand said that a few weeks ago NSTAR sent an application form completed by CVEC to ISO New England, the controller of the regional electric grid, as required for the size of project proposed in Tisbury.

“We must now await their approval, which we anticipate will come after their monthly reliability committee meeting in October,” Mr. Durand said.

In a follow-up phone conversation with The Times this week, CVEC project manager Ron Collins said that there is significant progress happening with NSTAR, but he had no news to report yet.

Tisbury is one of seven member towns on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod where CVEC will install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. CVEC is a municipal electric cooperative with tax-exempt status that works in concert with the Cape Light Compact (CLC), which is also one of its members.

CLC is a public regional energy services organization authorized by the 21 towns on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard and Barnstable and Dukes counties to negotiate for low-cost electricity and choose the electric supplier for their residents and businesses. CVEC enables municipal entities to own electricity-producing systems and sell the energy directly to CLC at wholesale cost.

Tisbury’s slow go

CVEC awarded its first round of solar projects, which include ones in Tisbury and Edgartown, to American Capital Energy (ACE) in April 2011.

Tisbury plans to put its first solar array at the site of its old landfill off State Road. The solar PV 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.

Tisbury expects to save about $1.3 million over 20 years, or about $65,000 annually in municipal energy costs, under a power purchase agreement and solar project development venture with CVEC. Edgartown expects its projects to produce enough energy to power all town buildings, an expense that now totals more than $100,000 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, which they can use to offset their electric bills.

On August 1, 2011, Tisbury finalized a power purchase agreement and solar project development venture with the CVEC, with ConEdison Solutions as the power provider. At that time, Mr. Straw told the Tisbury selectmen that ACE was looking at a January or February 2012 timeframe to start the solar array installation, which should take about 90 days.

As The Times reported in January 2012, solar energy projects in Tisbury and Edgartown were 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. However, Tisbury’s attempt to obtain an interconnection agreement with NSTAR brought the progress to a grinding halt, Mr. Straw said.

“My number one complaint is that our friends at NSTAR have had the request from ACE for an interconnection agreement since last November, and they waited and hemmed and hawed until February to finally tell us, oh no, we have to do a study,” Mr. Straw said. “And then they said the study would take at least four and a half months or something like that. So come the end of September, I think the time is up. And then, if they at that point agree, there is something like a six-month time period where ACE will be doing procurement before they really actually start work on the landfill site.”

Mr. Straw questioned the need for an impact study at the same site where NSTAR hooks up five leased portable generators to the power grid during the summer to provide extra electricity. He said since the generators produce 5 megawatts compared to the 1 megawatt the solar array would produce, he did not understand why there would be any issue.

Mr. Durand, however, said the determination for whether or not to do a study is based on the proposed size and location of a project. “The study literally addresses what impact, if any, the project will have on the existing electric grid,” he said. “If we determine a grid upgrade is needed to support the electricity generated by the project, the cost of the upgrade is the responsibility of the developer.

“Regarding whether a study was needed, this determination rests solely with NSTAR and has little to do with whether or not there are generators on the Island that can be used during the summer to meet customer demand. These impact studies take many issues into consideration and they must be done, when required, to ensure the safety of our customers and the reliability of the electric system.”

A matter of experience

By comparison, South Mountain Company (SMC), an employee-owned architecture, building and renewable energy firm in West Tisbury, did not seem hindered by the NSTAR process in recently completing a project for the Vineyard Power Cooperative to install canopies topped with solar panels in the Cronig’s parking lot in Tisbury.

“As the solar integrator for most of the PV systems installed on the Island, I can attest to the challenges of the NSTAR utility interconnection application process,” SMC energy manager and owner Rob Meyers wrote in response to an email from The Times. When SMC began installing solar systems on Martha’s Vineyard 12 years ago, NSTAR did not even have a process, he noted.

“Over the years, we’ve developed strong relationships with some of the people on the interconnection team at NSTAR,” Mr. Meyers said.”We understand their deadlines and procedures, and plan well in advance in order to give them as much time as they need to complete their review.”

With that in mind, Mr. Meyers said SMC applied for phase two of the Cronig’s project, to be installed this fall, as part of the phase one project to avoid the flood of applications NSTAR is experiencing now.

“While we certainly do not get preferential treatment — everyone has to wait their turn — we have worked with the interconnection team enough to know what needs to be done to move the process along as quickly as possible,” Mr. Meyers said.

In addition to the challenges of its first CVEC solar project, Tisbury is also wrestling with siting decisions for two other proposed projects. Mr. Straw told the selectmen at their September 18 meeting that a decision needs to be made soon on a site for the round two CVEC solar project, so that Tisbury doesn’t lose out. As suggested by selectman chairman Tristan Israel, the selectmen plan to meet with the planning board, board of public works, and energy committee in late October to discuss the solar array site issues.