No go on solar panels

Posted
Sunday, Feb. 28
PITTSFIELD - Three owners of buildings on North Street have separately explored installing rooftop solar energy panels, only to find out that the downtown electrical circuit would not accept electricity back into the grid from a renewable energy source.

Without the ability to sell electricity back to the utility, the cost of the solar projects is prohibitive.

But Western Massachusetts Electric Co. officials are working with other utilities in the state and around the nation to address the issue.

According to Lacey Ryan, spokesperson for WMECO, because of the complex nature of the underground, networked, electrical transmission circuits in downtown Pittsfield, there are multiple redundancies built in to enhance dependability. If one circuit goes down, there is another to handle the load.

But if someone was to mount solar panels on a building there, the power generated would not be able to flow back into the grid, because the redundancies and complexities only allow power to flow in one direction.

"These networks were installed before renewable energy systems became so important," Ryan said. "But we are aware that this is an issue now, and with networks also in Greenfield, West Springfield, and two in Springfield, WMECO and other utilities are collaborating to engineer a solution."

Mike Supranowicz, president of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, said it's unfortunate because a demonstration solar project downtown could get others to follow suit, bringing more renewable energy to the downtown area.

"But I think they're [WMECO] sensitive to that and they want to work with us," he said. "It's just a matter of how."

Al Bauman, co- owner of Berkshire Technology Partners in Pittsfield, said that he became interested in the concept for his building at the corners of Fenn and North streets when the Chamber hosted a seminar a couple of years ago. So he checked into it.

"That's when I found out we couldn't do that downtown," he said. "We were obviously surprised and disappointed. But Pittsfield has some really great things happening on that forefront, so it would be really great to have something like that downtown."

Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto said he wasn't aware of the issue. He noted that the city is looking into mounting solar arrays on all of its school buildings, and is designing an installation at its wastewater treatment facility for completion this summer.

"We are serious about moving solar power forward," he said. "This is an interesting issue you're bringing to my attention and I intend to look into it."

Meanwhile, Legacy Banks is working closely with WMECO officials to find a way to make it work.

David Hicks, facilities management officer for Legacy, said they have a plan to mount a 10-kilowatt rooftop array on its North Street building, with another four- or five-kilowatt array on top of the drive-through teller building in back.

"We've been keeping an eye on technology developments in photovoltaics to find a way to do this," Hicks said. " We've also been working toward that goal with Western Mass Electric and Berkshire Photovoltaic Services. So we're hoping for a quick turnaround. But we've been working on it for three years."


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