Sandisfield goes green with state grant

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SANDISFIELD — In exchange for agreeing to take steps that will save this municipality energy, the state is giving Sandisfield money to make it happen.

Now designated as a participant in the state's Green Communities Act program, the town will receive $129,000. Sandisfield is one of seven towns to get funding this year from the state Department of Energy Resources. The awards ranged from $128,000 to $153,000.

"It really seemed too good to be true," said Select Board member George Riley. "But once we really examined the program, we thought, 'This is a no-brainer.' Money to do energy upgrades, and those were going to save us money also on an ongoing basis."

To do this, the town had to meet five criteria that include buying fuel-efficient vehicles, setting aside land and easing the usual permit restrictions for a commercial solar project.

The goal is to reduce energy consumption in town by 20 percent over five years.

Last year, 30 communities received the designation and money. More than $100 million has gone to towns and cities since the program began in 2010.

The program is one way the state is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make investments in renewable projects, according to Gov. Charlie Baker.

It's also going to reduce utility bills at Town Hall, said Town Administrator Fred Ventresco.

Riley said the grand plan is to put a solar array on the Town Hall annex. This would supply about 70 percent of the building's electricity. But first, the building needs insulation in some areas, and drafty single-pane windows need replacing.

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The town would also add air source heat pumps to replace the oil system, and change all lighting to LED. Once all that is done, solar will be added to generate the power.

"It's where we would get the biggest savings," Riley said, noting that the building gets the most use.

Riley said the solar system has to be purchased with this first round of funding. And the town's committee overseeing all this, called The Green Team, then will be able to continue applying for competitive grants. Riley said this will allow it to continue to make changes across town that will reduce energy and expenses even more.

As part of the requirements for the program, town voters last year passed a solar overlay bylaw to allow by-right siting of a commercial array. This means a project needs only a review by town planners, and not a more rigorous special permit through the Select Board. The overlay covers all town-owned land except Yanner Park, which is intended for recreation.

Riley said that the town's ownership means control over any large solar plans should a company come knocking.

"People were concerned that someone could come in and build a solar array, basically without permission," he said. "This gave us control while making it clear that we want to encourage solar."

Yet, residents might not have to worry. Riley pointed out a problem: the areas where commercial solar would most likely be built are far from the necessary infrastructure for transferring energy, known as three-phase power. And building that is about $1 million per mile, Riley noted.

"No one has come to the town to do this," he said. "We would love to have a solar field here in town. But we have such limited access to three-phase power."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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