Success of North Adams solar array 'a good problem to have'

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NORTH ADAMS — The city has seen the light: Its 3.5-megawatt solar array is producing enough energy to meet all its municipal electricity needs.

In North Adams, that has not come as a surprise to anyone who helped plan the array. But the fact that the 6,000-panel installation — it was built in 2015 and covers 14 acres on a capped landfill — consistently is producing beyond original projections has forced city officials to make a few adjustments.

After covering its own electric bills, the city is sitting on unused net-metering credits valued at about $200,000 that it hopes to unload on other municipalities, according to City Administrative Officer Michael Canales.

"It's a good problem to have in that we can sell [excess credits] back into the market. ... It is just a procedural challenge to work through," said Mayor Thomas Bernard.

At current electricity rates, the landfill array results in the city saving about 25 percent on its annual electric bill, which is now budgeted at about $380,000 annually. The credits cover everything from streetlights to the city's skating rink.

The savings are courtesy of the net-metering process that allows a solar installation like the city's to feed the energy it produces into the grid and receive credits in return.

In the case of the landfill array, Syncarpha Capital covered the $9 million cost of installation. Per a 20-year purchasing agreement, the city pays Syncarpha for the energy that is generated by the array at a rate cheaper than the standard commercial rate.

Currently, the city is buying electricity at a rate of $0.099 per kilowatt-hour, compared with the commercial rate of $0.1475 per kilowatt-hour.

Though the savings are real, the city's budget hasn't always immediately reflected them.

Because the city agreed in 2015 to buy all the credits produced at its landfill solar array, it has spent more than $500,000 on its electric bill in a single year.

"Any savings we would have seen in the budget [last year] were evaporated by too many credits," Canales said.

The excess has been consistent enough for the city to reach out to other municipalities in hopes of finding a new home for unused credits. It cannot sell the credits to private entities.

"It's not as though it's a seamless situation like the household where you just run your meter backward and [excess] goes out into the market automatically," Bernard said.

The city recently sold credits valued at $20,000 to the Hoosac Water Quality District for $14,776.

One partner, Methuen Public Schools, has bought credits valued at $94,000 in the past. The city now is hoping to strike a deal with the Methuen school district to sell it $100,000 worth of credits every year.

For North Adams, these deals offer a chance to recapture the money it spent buying credits it won't use. For the partnering municipality, the deal is a chance to save 25 percent on a portion of its electricity costs.

Though the credits never expire, city officials are wary of allowing them to accumulate.

The city also bought into two 650-kilowatt installations erected in North Brookfield and Westminster that account for about 85 percent of the school department's electricity usage, according to Canales.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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