Solar array generates electricity, contractor generates complaints

The contractor installed inverters, which emit a constant hum, close to several homes. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Edgartown selectmen called American Capital Energy (ACE) and the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC) to its regular Monday meeting to address numerous issues with two large solar-energy installations constructed over the spring and summer.

ACE is the contractor which won the bid to install solar arrays in Edgartown and six other communities as part of a complex public bidding process managed by CVEC.

A sound consultant hired by the town found that noise coming from equipment at the solar array installed on town land near the Nunnepaug well site off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road clearly violates noise standards set by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Residents of the Smith Hollow development, which abuts the Nunnepaug site, said there are also issues with screening, fencing, security, site maintenance, and landscaping.

“We’re going to make this right,” chairman Art Smadbeck said. “One way or another, this is going to be corrected.”

Sound advice

Residents say three inverters installed on the Smith Hollow side of the solar array are emitting a constant hum during daylight hours. The inverters convert direct current (DC) solar energy into alternating  current (AC), which allows the electricity to flow into the commercial grid.

Lawrence Copley, a noise-control engineer hired by Edgartown selectmen to evaluate the noise levels, measured the noise coming from the inverters on Sept. 18, a sunny day when the facility was producing solar power at near capacity.

“The sound from the inverters is clearly in violation of the Massachusetts DEP noise policy, and also constitutes a noise nuisance, in my opinion, based on the sound level and measurements reported here,” Mr. Copley wrote in his report to the town. According to his measurements, taken from the rear deck of one of the residences, the inverters increased the level of noise by 40 percent over the ambient sound level, from 35 dBA of ambient noise to 49 dBA when the inverters were operating at near capacity (dBA is a scientific measurement of relative noise levels). Mr. Copley recommended building acoustic screens around the three inverter platforms to shield the residential neighborhood from the noise.

Zac Osgood, project manager for ACE, said a noise consultant hired by his company recommended attaching vent baffles to the equipment, which, he said, would bring the noise level into compliance with state regulations.

Town administrator Pam Dolby was concerned that ACE could not guarantee the baffles would reduce noise to an acceptable level, while the solution recommended by the town’s noise consultant would be guaranteed. Mr. Smadbeck proposed a compromise.

“You give us the estimate for your solution,” he told Mr. Osgood. “We’ll get an estimate for our solution. We’ll do our solution, because I think it’s better, and we’ll pay the difference.”

Smith Hollow resident Jim Cimeno said the problem could have been averted by installing the inverters on the other side of the site, which abuts forested conservation land.

“Right from the start, I suggested they move them to the other side,” Mr. Cimeno said. “We were told they weren’t going to make any noise.”

Mr. Smadbeck asked why the inverters were located near residential homes.

“You guys are familiar with this equipment, you know ahead of time it’s going to create a problem,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “Why did you put them on the house side of the project, instead of the woods side?”

“The [inverters] are laid out for interconnection purposes,” Mr. Osgood said. “They are placed on that side because of the run of cable, it makes it easier to get to the point of connection.”

Liz Argo, special projects coordinator for CVEC, said at other projects the cooperative oversees, inverters do not produce any noticeable increase in sound level.

“I’ve been a little bit embarrassed,” Ms. Argo said. “We have other solar sites where this is not a problem. This is clearly a problem.”

Other issues

Neighbors and town officials also fault the contractor for a lack of maintenance and poor screening, fencing, and landscaping.

“There was supposed to be a maintenance schedule,” said town administrator Pam Dolby. “It doesn’t appear there has been any maintenance at all. What the town would like to see is a schedule of maintenance, so it doesn’t look like an overgrown field with some panels.”

Security is another issue raised by health agent Matt Poole and building inspector Leonard Jason, Jr. The solar array is surrounded by a 12-foot chain-link fence, but on Tuesday, there was no lock on the gate to the facility. Inside, despite warnings of an electric-shock danger printed in several languages, there were no locks on any of the inverters or other equipment.

Cedar trees planted as a buffer, as specified in the contract, were also a point of contention. Neighbors said 23 of the trees are damaged or dying, and were left with no grading, seeding, or mulch.

According to town officials, in July, a subcontractor said he was unable to complete the job as specified in the contract, because he couldn’t find a supplier that could get 200 trees to Martha’s Vineyard.

At that point, selectman Michael Donaroma, who owns a landscaping company, said he would contact his suppliers, and was able to get the trees, and arrange ferry transportation. He was hired by White Bros.-Lynch Corp., the subcontractor responsible for overall site excavation and grading, to do the planting. Mr. Donaroma said he is responsible for the trees, but was not contracted to do the grading, seeding, or mulching.

“There are a few that are dead that need to be replaced,” Mr. Donaroma said. “I don’t want to do it now because it’s too dry and hot. At the end of my contract I replace anything that’s dead. I take care of the trees for a year, I have to guarantee they survive.”

Neighbors also said there was no screening around the exterior of the facility, as the contractor promised. Mr. Osgood said the company intends to attach green opaque screening to the chain-link fence in the near future.

Conservation agent Jane Varkonda said similar problems are evident at the solar array constructed on town-owned land at Katama Farm.

“We would like something in writing,” Ms. Varkonda said. “We have the same issues at Katama, the trees are smaller, and the weeds are growing taller than the trees. They hadn’t mowed any of the grass around the solar arrays until two weeks ago.”

Selectmen agreed to document each of the outstanding issues in a certified letter to ACE, and Mr. Osgood agreed to respond with a date the work would be completed.

“We will get to the end of this, and it will be right,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

The original online version incorrectly reported that solar panels produce alternating current, which must be converted to direct current. The opposite is correct.