Aquinnah celebrates its new landfill solar panels

In subfreezing temperatures, Aquinnah town administrator Adam Wilson introduced the people responsible for the Aquinnah landfill solar panel project. — Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

About a dozen heavily bundled people braved a cold but sunny morning on a small, windy knoll at the capped Aquinnah landfill to mark the completion of a town solar panel project on Wednesday morning. The panels are expected to produce enough power to meet all of the town’s municipal electrical needs and more.

Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman cut the ceremonial ribbon while town administrator Adam Wilson, representatives from the builder, The South Mountain Company (SMC), and Paul Pimentel, chairman of Vineyard Power (VP), looked on.

The town currently spends more than $14,000 per year on its municipal electrical load, including town offices, police and fire stations, the library, street lights, and public bathrooms.

The 50-kW panels are expected to produce approximately 65,000kWh per year. Their life expectancy is almost 30 years. Mr. Wilson said that in ten years when the town buys the panels, he expects they should turn a profit for the town.

Vineyard Power (VP), a nonprofit energy cooperative, lead the project, financed and built by Island labor, according to Mr. Pimentel. The town has leased the land to VP for ten years. VP gives the town a ten percent discount on it’s total electric costs and puts the $400 lease payments into an escrow account which may be used by the town to buy the panels at the end of the lease term.

VP co-op members and Edgartown summer residents Lee and Julie Moncton invested 60 percent of the approximately $330,000 in construction costs. The Edgartown National Bank loaned Vineyard Power the remaining 40 percent, Mr. Pimentel said.

He said the investor receives substantial investment tax credits of about a third of the cost of the project from the federal government as well as front-loaded depreciation. There are Massachusetts state credits as well, according to Mr. Pimentel. Massachusetts is one of only six states that offers what are known as active solar renewable energy credits.

Mr. Pimentel said that due to the costs alternative energy projects would not be economically feasible at this time without the government’s willingness to give tax breaks to investors.

The project was approved at a one-question special town meeting in December 2011 attended by 49 Aquinnah voters. Mr. Wilson said that he remembered a few naysayers at the beginning of the discussion but that support for the project grew during the meeting until it received almost unanimous support.

The panels, only the third municipal landfill project of its kind in southeastern Massachusetts and only the fifth in the entire state, have been producing power since December 19, according to the SMC project construction manager Derrill Bazzy, an Aquinnah resident.

He said that SMC faced some interesting issues in the project design. The nature of the capped landfill would not allow for a base driven more than 6 inches into the ground, he said, so the panel array is anchored to large concrete blocks that are more like moorings or above-ground footings.

They designed the superstructure to be high enough off the ground so the grass below could be mowed, unlike other projects built closer to the ground with a gravel base through which grass and weeds eventually grow, shading the panels.

Mr. Bazzy said they used domestically produced solar panels that are about 30 percent costlier than some imported models, but they produce 30 percent more power and they are expected to last much longer.

The towns of Tisbury and West Tisbury are considering similar projects. 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. Tisbury is also working with CVEC to put its first solar array at the site of its old landfill off State Road.