Tuesday January 31, 2012

LENOX -- While prospects grow dim for a municipal wind turbine project on Lenox Mountain, a three-pronged solar panel installation to meet the town’s municipal energy needs is shining brightly.

The School Committee is weighing approval of a site behind the middle and high school -- one of three locations being fast-tracked for possible construction this summer, pending approval by the Selectmen and voters. The other locations are at the old landfill in Lenox Dale and the nearby wastewater treatment plant.

While the solar panel plans are proceeding, a Lenox committee studying a wind-turbine proposal for Lenox Mountain recently issued a critical assessment of that plan. Chiefly, the panel saw little in terms of the wind power proposal’s financial benefits, and they had environmental concerns.

At its most recent meeting, Lenox School Committee members heard a presentation from Town Manager Gregory Federspiel describing the solar panel site on a hillside above Lenox Memorial Middle and High School between the building and the upper field.

"Think hard about that hillside and whether you want to go forward with this maximum. Or should we just scale it back a bit?" he said.

The major portion of the 20-year solar-panel lease would be at the other two sites, "so in terms of solar production, we can still meet the demands of the municipal uses even if we scale back on the high school," Federspiel added.

He suggested adjustments in the plan could be considered in case a parking lot expansion might be needed at the school in the future.

"It’s not essential or critical that we have all of the space," the town manager said.

Ideally, he said, construction of the solar-panel array on the three sites would allow solar-energy production to go on line in the late fall or early winter of this year.

A tall fence would surround the installation at the school, he said. Committee members raised concerns over glare and the visual impact of the array close to the school building. They suggested a "mock-up" of the panels on the site within the next two weeks.

Committee member Don Fitzgerald suggested that since the hill isn’t used for any purpose, "why not utilize it? Will it look unsightly? From my point of view, practicality overrules a postcard picture from a rear classroom window."

"This is the wave of the future, this is the message we need to be sending as a community and telling our kids," said committee member Veronica Fenton. "We have the kids learning and coming up with all different ways to be energy efficient and to be better stewards of our community resources, so I’m 100 percent supportive of us trying to do it. We’re just going to need the logistics of how it might happen."

"If it’s right outside the classroom, I just want to make sure it has to be there. Š It is a beautiful hill," responded Jeremiah Ames, the newest member of the committee.

Federspiel said town buildings’ electricity bills would be cut in half within two years after the solar panels are activated. Lenox would negotiate a lease with a provider, Broadway Electric of Boston, if the project is approved by Selectmen and then by voters at a special town meeting, perhaps in March.

The project is expected to be reconsidered by the School Committee at the next scheduled meeting on Feb. 6.