New solar array hits legal 'wormhole' in Windsor

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WINDSOR — In a thrifty town, pennies count. Officials in Windsor don't like the way they're adding up after investing in a solar array.

They hoped for help from Boston, but it didn't come in the Legislature's final hours this session.

Due to a wrinkle in state law, the relatively modest 20-kilowatt photovoltaic system Windsor installed with public funds this year behind its Route 9 town offices is classified as private. That wouldn't matter if all the electricity generated by three big ground-mounted panels is used inside town buildings.

But Windsor counted on being able to send unused electricity out into the grid, earning credit that would dramatically cut its Eversource bill year-round.

After getting the system up and running, the town's Green Committee learned that under state law, the array's size classifies it as a private system, regardless of its public ownership. And because of net-metering caps that apply to Eversource and other utilities, the town cannot recoup the full retail value of the power it at times sends out through the utility's transmission lines.

That's where the pennies come in. Stu Besnoff, chairman of the Windsor Green Committee, calculates that instead of earning in the range of nearly 20 cents for every kilowatt hour of electricity the system produces, the town will get around 4 cents.

Over a year, the difference will amount to about $4,800, he said. The higher price is the retail one; the lower is wholesale.

That is $4,800 that can go to the utility's bottom line, rather than to the town.

"We're subsidizing a rich corporation," said Select Board member Doug McNally. "This is another instance when Boston doesn't understand small communities."

McNally said that because of the small size of its solar array, Windsor's problem isn't shared by many municipalities. The provision keeping Windsor from qualifying for the higher net-metering prices does not apply to systems over 60 kilowatts in size.

"Small towns that can't put in huge arrays are in a fix," McNally said. He said Cummington paused its solar project after learning of Windsor's dilemma.

"You're putting up roadblocks to towns taking positive steps," McNally said.

Surprise problem

Members of the Green Committee, who met Monday to plan strategy at a folding table in town hall, said the problem crept up on them.

The state's Green Community adviser, Jim Barry, guided them along the way. Committee members said both Barry and the company that installed the array, SunBug Solar, were caught by surprise when the town was told its 20-kilowatt system didn't qualify for net metering.

It was too big to receive a personal classification and too small for a municipal label. That left the town needing to get more headroom, powerwise, through an increase in the state-imposed cap on net metering.

"We weren't aware of it," Besnoff said of the problem.

"Ironically, no one seemed to know of this wormhole until Windsor was in it," said Janet Bradley, a Green Committee member. "We were jumping through all these hoops and in the end we got shot down anyway.

"We're not getting the full benefit, pricewise, for what we put into the system," said Bob Meyers, a committee member.

The state Senate passed a bill this year that would have eliminated a cap on how much alternative energy can be sent onto the grid. State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, backed the measure. Members of the Windsor panel believed a House bill was likely to make the grade, solving their problem.

But the session ended July 31 without action.

"In mid-July, there was a great deal of optimism," said Besnoff, the Green Committee chairman. "This comes as a terrible blow to the town of Windsor," Bradley said.

With no chance of a legislative solution soon, the town plans to provide comments in support of an Eversource request now before the state Department of Public Utilities.

Priscilla Ress, an Eversource spokeswoman, said that if the board approves, the change would eliminate the existing — and different — net metering caps for two of the corporation's electricity units, Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and NSTAR in Eastern Massachusetts.

"If they do get combined, there will be more room for Western Massachusetts," Ress said.

As it stands, though, Windsor isn't eligible, as a "private" generator producing more than 10 kilowatts of power through what's known as the Massachusetts System of Assurance of Net Metering Eligibility. That system regulates producer access to the grid.

As of Tuesday, the online report about net metering capacity showed how hard it is for solar generators to get power out onto the grid at retail rather than wholesale prices.

For private generators, WMECO's capacity for net metering is listed as 1 kilowatt, with 6,873 customers on a waiting list. NSTAR, by comparison, has an availability of 100,752 kilowatts, with no one on the waiting list.

On the public side, WMECO has 10,754 kilowatts of capacity and NSTAR has 181,948 — with no one waiting to hook in as providers.

In a statement Monday, Staci Rubin, the DPU hearing officer handling the Eversource request, said a comment period on creating a single, consolidated net metering private cap for both WMECO and NSTAR runs through Aug. 14. A decision could come in a matter of weeks.

If Eversource loses its request before the DPU to remove the distinction between WMECO and NSTAR, officials in Windsor say their next option will be to apply for an exemption through the DPU. That means submitting an application through a town attorney, answering questions and waiting months or a year for an answer, committee members say.

When asked if Eversource would make an exception and allow Windsor to join as a private provider, Ress said it doesn't have that option.

"It's not up to Eversource to make these designations," she said.

Green spirit

Windsor began its march toward renewable energy by winning status as a Green Community three years ago, which qualified it for a state grant to make its public buildings more energy-efficient and to embrace renewable sources.

Members of the committee matched the size of their array to their actual power needs — and also took into account what the nearby Eversource transformer could accommodate.

A big factor in the size of the array selected was a wish to use heat pumps and move away from reliance on an oil furnace.

"Without net metering, the array will only benefit us in the months when we don't need any heat," Bradley said in an email. "Come winter, the array will not generate enough to meet the building's needs and we will not be able to use the surplus energy that was generated during the summer."

McNally, the Select Board member, says the current inability to recoup full value for the electricity the array produces imposes a financial strain on the town.

"In the wintertime, we're not going to be generating enough," he said. "We're going to be giving Eversource cheap energy. They're doing well."

Despite the net metering problem, the town is still eligible for solar energy tax credits that are worth more than $5,000 a year.

"It's not like we're losing entirely on this," said Marnie Meyers, a committee member. "We just happened to be in the doughnut hole."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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