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Sunderland vets solar proposal for school, police station

SUNDERLAND — When it comes to solar farms, Sunderland is forward-thinking.

Unlike many neighboring towns that are playing catch-up developing solar bylaws after a developer proposes a project, Sunderland already knew 14 months in advance what it would allow before it went out to bid in June to develop a solar farm on municipal land.

Last April, residents approved a bylaw before any proposal came to the table. The bylaw, developed by the Planning Board, requires a special permit and a site plan review for arrays over 1,000 square feet and places a height limit of 15 feet. Roof-mounted solar arrays and ground-mounted arrays under 1,000 square feet are allowed by right.

The bylaw has allowed the town to anticipate many questions the community had Monday night at the Town Hall, where the Board of Selectmen, solar consultant, Beth Greenblatt of Beacon Integrated Solutions, and the public met to discuss the solar planning committee’s recommendation of Boston-based Broadway Electrical Co., to construct two solar arrays, at the elementary school and public safety complex.

“I’m working on a half-dozen other projects. Communities are asking the same questions. The difference is Sunderland has a Planning Board working hard on this,” Greenblatt said.

The intent of requiring a special permit for a solar array is to make it a public process for when a project came forward, Planning Board member Teresa Jones said.

The elementary school could see a 160-kilowatt direct-current array that produces 194,000 kilowatt hours a year. The public safety complex could see a 396-kilowatt direct current array with a projected generation of 481,000 kilowatt hours per year. The specific designs are not determined yet. The town will negotiate the final designs with Broadway. Before any approval is given, however, the Conservation Commission needs to give approval to construct on wetlands.

Based on a two-year average, town buildings use 770,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year. Its average electric bill is $135,000 a year.

The company would develop two arrays, as requested by the town. Two sites are required to achieve all the financial benefits to the town, Selectman David Pierce and a member of the solar planning committee explained.

Broadway chose the school and police station out of five options, which included land at Bull Hill Road, at the capped landfill on Reservoir Road, and behind the town office building and public library on School Street. The school and public safety complex, Selectman Tom Fydenkevez said, were the best options in that they were both close to power distribution centers on Route 116.

The town sought proposals in June because of the benefits it could reap from a solar farm. The main benefit is the money it will receive.

“We thought what can the town do to increase the revenue without affecting taxpayers,” Fydenkevez said.

According to an economic analysis by Greenblatt, the town would likely receive $13,262 in its first year. By the end of 20 years — the proposed term of lease for Broadway — the town would take in a total $306,547.

What the town will do with that extra cash flow is up for the community to decide, Pierce said.

The two solar arrays would likely generate 675,000 kilowatt hours of solar generation in its first year. By the end of 20 years, a projected 12,877,585 kilowatt hours would be the annual solar generation.

The figures are based on net metering — the process of measuring the difference between electricity delivered by the local utility, Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and the electricity generated by Sunderland.

According to Greenblatt, Sunderland will export the electricity generated at the elementary school and public safety complex to offset up to 100 percent of the town’s electricity requirements. Net metering allows Sunderland to achieve greater credits from WMECO.

These numbers, Greenblatt explained, are illustrative and would be negotiated with Broadway Electrical.

Another benefit of the solar arrays is education. Broadway has proposed providing three LCD screens, to be placed in the town hall, the elementary school and possibly the public safety complex, to demonstrate how the arrays generate electricity. The company would also include a curriculum enhancement program to help facilitate renewable energy education in the school.

On Monday night, the bylaw allowed the town to anticipate and answer many questions residents would ask.

One question on many residents’ minds was what would happen at the end of 20 years. Greenblatt explained that although the proposed lease between the town and Broadway is for 20 years, the town has included a buy-out provision. This allows the town to offer the company a buy-out if, in less than 20 years, the town wants to develop the site for another purpose. Also, the town can negotiate a reduced term, if it desires.

At the end of the 20 years, Sunderland will have the option to purchase the arrays, remove them or keep them there and extend the lease for Broadway Electrical. The solar developer is required to restore the land to its original agricultural use. This is another stipulation that may limit how Broadway Electrical constructs its arrays. For instance, the company would not be able to build the array on top of concrete over topsoil.

The solar proposal coincides with the town’s move toward energy savings. It recently received a $146,450 grant from the state’s Green Communities Division to use for energy reduction projects. The town is expecting to save 60,000 kilowatt hours per year after it upgrades the lighting at the elementary school to LED lights.

The town would likely see the arrays next year. Before the arrays are built, the project needs town meeting approval and Planning Board approval, in addition to negotiating a contract with Broadway.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 268

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