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Wilbraham Planning Board explores benefits of solar array

Date: 7/31/2012

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM — In an effort to explore options regarding zoning for large-scale ground-mounted photovoltaic arrays, the Planning Board invited John Guerin, a Wilbraham resident and vice president of operations and sales for EOS Ventures LLC to speak with them on July 25.

"John has been involved in photovoltaic solar projects and I thought it would good to spend a few minutes with him understanding what the potential is town-wide for these things. Our zoning for residential is pretty generic," Planning Board Chair Richard Butler said, adding that the purpose of the meeting was not to formulate any conclusions but simply for the board to become more familiar with the matter.

Butler explained that there is interest in the subject because Monson and Palmer both recently adopted new zoning regulations in response to proposed photovoltaic projects.

Guerin explained that neither project mentioned involved residential zoning, nor do any projects with which his company is involved.

"What Palmer and Monson are doing is more about commercial scale solar projects," he said.

Guerin said he believes there was an opportunity for the town to build a photovoltaic array producing two megawatts of power that would create $30,000 in revenue for the town through energy savings and new taxes.

The Green Communities Act, he explained, which was enacted in 2008, required the Commonwealth to move in this direction and new, updated legislation, once passed, would increase the requirements.

"The bill has gone though the Senate and the House and is in conference now," he said. "That will change a number of factors of the amount of renewable energy that utilities must take on. It's going to double it from 3 percent to 6 percent of their load capacity."

Guerin added that the new proposed legislation would formalize property taxes for photovoltaic arrays.

"Currently, under Massachusetts law there is no property tax on this equipment," he said.

Butler asked Guerin if there would be any benefit to putting a solar array on the town's capped landfill. Recently Longmeadow and East Longmeadow have had discussions about solar installations on their old landfills as well. While East Longmeadow has not formally pursued the idea, Longmeadow has under the direction of Selectman Mark Gold, who decided it was not feasible for the town at this time.

"Unfortunately the usable portion of the old dump is about two and a half acres, which would allow for a 500 [kilowatt] system," Guerin said.

The average solar energy plant requires approximately five acres of ground coverage to produce one megawatt of electricity and most standard arrays in Massachusetts average two to three megawatts, according to Guerin.

"They don't typically get much bigger than that," he said. "There are a couple of them out there, but it's very rare. It's hard to do."

Guerin explained that the size is limited primarily because of the needs and capabilities of utility companies.

"The grid is actually quite fragile and a system can only allow so much varying voltage before you start creating problems with it. The more solar that gets added over time, it can cause issues depending on where the system is located" he said. "[Solar] also cuts out some of their revenues, so they don't particularly like it."

Planning Board member Eric Fuller called the capacity of a 500 kilowatt system "marginal."

Guerin replied, "It is marginal, but I would say it's worth doing. The way these things are financed is with a 30 percent investment tax credit. With what I suggest, you would go for a power purchase agreement with a firm. There's no capital costs on the side of the town and there's a discount on electricity bought from that site."