Monday August 6, 2012

LENOX -- Town taxpayers are likely a year away -- maybe longer -- from reaping the benefits of a municipal solar-energy project, according to town and utility officials.

Town meeting voters in May approved the construction of solar arrays on two town-owned parcels in order to generate electricity that could eventually cut the town’s electric bill by 33 percent.

A Boston company plans to install, maintain and own solar panels at Lenox’s closed landfill and sewage treatment plant. Broadway Electric Inc. will sell Lenox the three megawatts of electricity produced to power its municipal facilities with no upfront costs to taxpayers.

However, Broadway remains in negotiations with National Grid to allow the $16.7 million solar project to be tied into the utility’s distribution system.

"The lack of an interconnection agreement is what’s going to hold up construction, likely until spring," said Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel. "Hopefully by this time next year we can flip the switch."

Federspiel may be too optimistic. Broadway had applied to National Grid for an interconnection agreement in February, with the utility’s initial response being sent to the developer this week, according to company spokesman David Graves.

Graves noted it could take more than a year to reach a deal with Broadway.

"We will require extensive construction from both us and [Broadway] to make sure our system can tie in with the project," he said. "In addition, quite a bit of documentation and testing must take place before it’s up and running."

Furthermore, National Grid indicated the lengthy approval process is, in part, due to hundreds of applications in Massachusetts and Rhode Island from individuals, businesses and municipalities wanting to hook up solar and wind turbine projects to the utility grid.

In Adams, the town’s 1.2 megawatt solar energy project has been in limbo since August 2011 waiting for its contractor to settle with National Grid. The town originally expected the solar array at the old landfill to be completed by last December, according to published reports.

Meanwhile, one Lee official is optimistic his town’s solar energy project will be under construction before winter. Thomas Wickham, chairman of the town’s Energy Efficiency Committee, said it makes sense for the town’s electricity provider, Western Massachusetts Electric Co., to reach an interconnection agreement with Broadway in a timely fashion.

"It’s advantageous for [WMECO] to add power to their grid from the Berkshires to ensure the area is receiving 100 percent service from the utility," Wickham said.

However, WMECO officials late last week were unable to comment on the status of Broadway’s request to hook up the $11.8 million Lee project to the WMECO system. Broadway also will install 3 megawatts worth of solar panels at the town’s closed landfill, wastewater treatment facility and three acres of a 170-acre parcel along Stockbridge Road, once targeted for a municipal golf course.

Under state regulation, utilities have six months to approve interconnection agreements; a time frame that state utility regulators need to improve, according to state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.

"The new energy bill signed by the governor [on Friday] calls for the Department of Public Utilities to conduct a study on how to expedite the process," Downing said.

He added, "Obviously there are complexities to bringing power into the grid as utilities aren’t used to getting electricity from their customers."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.