Thursday February 18, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- The Western Massachusetts Electric Co. has picked an eight-acre parcel in Pittsfield to develop what will be the largest solar power facility in New England, according to the company.

The 1.8-megawatt facility will be located on Silver Lake Boulevard on land that is jointly owned by WMECO and the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. Six acres belong to WMECO and the two others to PEDA. WMECO also owns a substation that is situated in the middle of both parcels.

Local permitting for the project is under way, and construction is expected to begin by the spring, according to WMECO. Construction is expected to cost between $10 million and $12 million, said WMECO spokeswoman Sandra Ahearn.

It is the first of several large-scale solar power facilities that WMECO intends to build.

According to WMECO, the solar facility is expected to contribute more than $200,000 in annual property tax revenue to the City of Pittsfield. The site will have the capacity to provide enough energy to heat a maximum of 1,800 homes, said WMECO spokeswoman Sandra Ahearn.

"We're excited about the Pittsfield site. It meets a lot of our requirements," Ahearn said. "It's considered to be a Gateway City (a state economic designation), and it's a brownfield site. One of the requirements was for the sites to be immediately available, and because we are part of it, we can move on it pretty quickly."

The Berkshire Economic Development Corp. worked closely with the City of Pittsfield, WMECO and PEDA to secure the project for Pittsfield, said BEDC President David Rooney.

The two parcels were among eight potential sites that WMECO listed with the state Department of Public Utilities in August when it became the first state utility company to receive permission to own and operate solar facilities within its service area, which includes the four counties of Western Massachusetts. WMECO is currently authorized to install six megawatts of solar.

The state is planning to install 250 megawatts of solar by 2017. Under the Green Communities Act, each Massachusetts utility company may own up to 50 megawatts of solar generation, subject to approval by the DPU.

"It's great to see a major component of the Green Communities Act start to move," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who helped author the GCA. Downing said selecting Pittsfield is "a win across the board" because it brings development to the previously vacant PEDA property, puts more clean energy into the grid, and provides tax revenue for the city of Pittsfield, Downing said.

Besides providing a source of additional tax revenue to the city, Mayor James M. Ruberto said the construction of the WMECO facility shows that Pittsfield is open to projects that use renewable energy,

"It's an economic development halo," said Ruberto, adding that solar power is another tool the city can use "when we talk to people who are interested in Pittsfield."

The city has also received federal economic stimulus funds to develop a smaller solar power facility at its sewage treatment plant on Holmes Road. That project is currently in the design phase, with construction scheduled for this summer, said Public Works Commissioner Bruce I. Collingwood.

A third Pittsfield site, a former city landfill located between East Street and the Downing Industrial Park on Hubbard Avenue, was among the eight initial sites that WMECO submitted to the DPU. Ahearn said WMECO is currently evaluating 25 sites owned by municipalities and private developers that are located in its service area.

"The landfill is still in play," Ruberto said.

Ahearn said she did not know if the landfill is still under consideration, or whether any of the other 26 sites that WMECO is evaluating are located in Berkshire County.

WMECO large scale solar power facility is the first entity that will be located at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires, said PEDA's interim Executive Director William M. Hines Sr. PEDA was formed 12 years ago to oversee the development of the 52-acre business park, which is located on the site of General Electric's former power transformer facility.

"We're excited about the project because it is an investment in green energy production," Hines said.

The location also allows PEDA to fill an out-of-the way building site.

"That property is kind of tucked out of the way, and doesn't offer the best exposure for a business site," he said.

The site will also be difficult to reach when GE begins to clear up PCB contamination in and around nearby Silver Lake, a process that Hines said is expected to begin this summer and last for two years.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.