West Tisbury inks landfill solar array agreement

The West Tisbury landfill, future site of solar collectors. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In a divided vote, the West Tisbury selectmen voted on December 5 to enter into an agreement with Cape and Vineyard Electrical Cooperative (CVEC) to allow the cooperative to build a photovoltaic array at the town landfill off Old Stage Road.

As part of the contract, CVEC will build the new solar array on approximately six acres of the capped town landfill at no cost to the town, and run the facility for 20 years in exchange for tax breaks and incentives from the state.

The cost of the photovoltaic array is estimated to be $1 million. The Cape Light Compact established CVEC in 2007 to develop local renewable energy projects and use such projects to stabilize electrical rates for ratepayers in member towns.

Currently, there are 20 members of CVEC, including the County of Barnstable, Dukes County, the town of Barnstable and Island members Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and West Tisbury.

Some additional benefits of CVEC membership include eligibility for lower cost financing for renewable energy projects. The cooperative structure also generally limits member communities’ financial liability.

The Green Communities Act also provides benefits to member communities such as net metering, which allows certain renewable energy generating facilities to allocate to other distribution company customers credits on future energy bills.

The West Tisbury energy committee started working on the deal with CVEC about two years ago, and earlier this year selectmen hired consultant Scott Ridley of Ridley & Associates to review the deal.

The deal ratified by selectmen Wednesday of last week will allow the town to purchase back energy generated from the PV array for approximately 7 cents a kilowatt hour to provide power to town buildings and the West Tisbury School.

The town currently pays approximately 12 cents a kilowatt to NSTAR to provide electricity to the town buildings and the school.

In previous discussions with selectmen, members of the town energy committee have said the deal could save the town between $30,000 to $40,000 a year and up to $800,000 or more over the course of the 20-year contract.

The PV array is expected to produce more electricity than the town can use, but the deal does not allow the town to sell that excess energy on the open market. Instead the extra energy will go back to other CVEC members through net metering and allow them to purchase more electricity at a lower price.

As part of the deal, the town can either take over the management of the array, dismantle it, or have someone else manage it after the initial 20-year period.

Before signing the contract at their regular meeting last week, selectman Richard Knabel expressed strong reservations about the deal and made an argument for his colleagues not to sign the pact.

Mr. Knabel said he was worried about committing the town to a 20-year deal, and pointed to the language of the deal that required the town to establish a “municipal load.”

The municipal load is essentially a baseline for the amount of energy the town uses to power its buildings. The language of the agreement allows the town to adjust the amounts for each building, but does not allow new buildings to be added.

Mr. Knabel said the agreement gave the town little flexibility. “We’re hemmed in by the fact that it’s a regional arrangement with quite a few towns; we can’t try to adjust this pact [to benefit] ourselves,” he said. “That seems to come across very clear to me, and it’s one of the things that can’t be changed.”

Mr. Knabel pointed to the town of Aquinnah and their deal with Vineyard Power Solar LLC to develop a 48-kilowatt PV array on their landfill. He said that deal allowed the town more flexibility.

“If this were the only game in town I think I would have one set of feelings. But I know for a fact it’s not the only game in town. The town of Aquinnah just finished building a PV array on its town landfill, and did it on its own,” he said.

He continued: “The town of Mashpee did the same thing and built their own array on their own terms. They both got deals…that are specific to the needs of the town. That is the direction I would like to see us go.”

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter said he shared some of Mr. Knabel’s concerns about the inability to amend or add accounts. But he said the town energy committee has worked long and hard on the project and done its due diligence.

“The energy committee has been looking at this for I don’t know how long with their expertise, and months ago we hired this consultant, Mr. Ridley, and we involved the town attorney and the CVEC attorney,” he said.

“Your questions are good,” Mr. Manter continued. “But one thing I have learned in municipal government is that you are never going to get everything perfect, exactly the way you want it…. I think [the energy committee] worked hard and I think if we don’t act soon we won’t see anything done.”

Mr. Knabel noted the money to build the new array would come from off-Island. “Aquinnah has been able to get local financing, local construction,” he said. “All the money that got this built was kept local.”

Chairman Cynthia Mitchell, who was off Island and participated in the discussion and vote via speakerphone, said the town should move forward with the deal. “We had our questions, we put them out there and the answers have come back,” she said. “The experts, both legal and energy [experts], have said this will work. I am certainly willing to vote to take the vote forward.”

The vote to enter into the agreement with CVEC was 2-1, with Mr. Knabel dissenting.