Thursday December 9, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- The nearly $8 million, 1.5-megawatt solar energy project at Pittsfield's wastewater treatment plant is nearing completion, soon ending its dependency on Western Massachusetts Electric Co. for power.

The contractors installing the solar photovoltaic system on the grounds of the nearly 50-year-old sewer plant off Holmes Road should wrap up their work in two months, according to Commissioner of Public Works and Utilities, Bruce I. Collingwood.

"The installation is going nice and smooth so a February completion looks good," Collingwood said.

City officials expect the energy upgrade will save taxpayers about $200,000 in energy costs and transform the plant into a national model for other communities to follow.

"Saving $200,000 is an indication of what we can do with green energy," said Ward 6 Councilor John M. Krol Jr., who also chairs the Pittsfield Green Commission. "We've made a point of being a leading green community."

Furthermore, any unused electricity generated by the solar panels will be sold to the utility.

"Some technical issues are still being worked out so excess power can flow back to the grid," said Collingwood.

While Pittsfield is authorized to spend up to $13.4 million in federal stimulus money for construction and oversight, Collingwood doesn't anticipate using all the funds, even if some added costs materialize before the project is completed.

Solar power is part of an overall energy-efficient upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant that includes an ongoing $8.2 million overhaul of the facility. One of the energy -savings measures includes fitting it with a system that uses methane gas from sewage to generate energy and reduce the plant's greenhouse gas emissions.

A solar-powered sewer plant will be one of three major solar-energy projects within Pittsfield. The city recently contracted with Axio Power of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and two local companies, Gable Electric and J.H. Maxymillian Construction, to build a 2-megawatt solar plant at a closed city landfill.

The $10 million project on Downing Parkway will provide 11 percent of the power used by city-owned facilities saving taxpayers more than $2 million on Pittsfield's electric bill over the next 20 years, according to city officials. Construction of the 8,000 solar panel array on the nine-acre site will likely start in mid-June 2011 and be completed by the end of next year.

Pittsfield is already home to New England's largest solar energy project. Western Massachusetts Electric Co. recently began operating the 1.8-megawatt installation the utility owns on eight acres at William Stanley Business Park with 6,500 solar panels -- enough to power 300 homes.

"These projects puts the city of Pittsfield on the map for green energy," said Collingwood. "It shows the city has a stronghold on green opportunities."