National Grid nixes solar project unless users pay for upgrades

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Staff Writer
Published: 12/26/2018 4:47:23 PM

 WENDELL — Residents who thought they’d pioneered a state’s first-ever community-owned photovoltaic co-op are wrestling with what to do now that National Grid has refused to allow the 50-household project without paying toward an unanticipated $3.9 million upgrade to the electric substation.

“It could be dead in the water,” said Greg Garrison, president of Hatfield-based Northeast Solar, which not only designed the 220-kilowatt solar array that was to go on a 1.33-acre town-owned Wendell Depot Road lot, but also developed the legal framework and documentation to allow the co-op that would have provided for member households to own panels on a centrally located array and be eligible for all federal and state incentives. 

But, after two years of work and plans that would have begun construction on the site in October for completion this year, co-op members were denied an interconnection agreement, with an announcement that all such large-scale agreements would be put on hold because of a number of large-scale commercial solar arrays being developed that together would exceed their capacity to process the electricity generated.

“This came as a shock and seemed unreasonable,” said Donald Stone, an organizer of the Wendell co-operative that had been planned to serve residents like him, who don’t have a suitable site for a photovoltaic array.

A National Grid study determined that while interconnection with the community project to the substation would be “feasible,” its estimated cost would be more than $3.9 million, plus or minus 25 percent.

The planned 220-kilowatt array would be a tiny fraction of the large commercial projects, said Stone, so, the co-op brought the matter before the Selectboard.

The board wrote to National Grid President Dean Seavers on Oct. 31, saying an upgrade to the local substation is not required by this small (.2 megawatt) project, but is required because other large megawatt developments, from out-of-state companies that do not support the local economy, have asked to be connected to the same substation … “Not only will this project be delayed, but now the cooperative members will also be forced to pay for the upgrade to accommodate these other mult-megawatt projects ... This is unfair to this project and to this community.” 

In its letter, the board asked that Wendell’s community solar project be connected “and not be held in line burdened with an upgrade that is not driven by our small system size.”

The Nov. 14 response from the utility’s Consumer and Community Management Department said, “This section of our service territory is very congested with solar projects, and this saturation is requiring us to conduct a larger, more comprehensive study of the area. There are three substations involved in the study to identify an area solution with a total of 63 MW of interconnection requests being studied. ... We expect that the study results will highlight a need for major system modifications. “

It added that the co-op “would be expected to pay the cost of any modifications specific to its project, as well as its fair share of any common system modifications,” indicating that the project amounts to 0.35 percent of the 63 megawatts of requests. 

In terms of time, it added, “Given the scope and nature of the system modifications that are currently anticipated, construction timeframes are expected to be lengthy (on the order of multiple-years, with the potential to be upwards of five years, particularly if a new substation is required). Regardless of the co-op’s project size or queue position, current system conditions preclude us from authorizing interconnection until both the area study and its associated upgrades have been completed.”

“Essentially, it kills the project,” said Garrison, whose company has been hoping to work on community solar projects in Greenfield and Montague, has been talking with officials in Conway and Colrain and hopes to amend the state’s new SMART program to allow for new incentives to encourage smaller projects.

Garrison added, “Our frustration is that it’s not even that big (a project.) We were told, ‘If you keep it under 250 kilowatts, it would be no problem,’ and the biggest frustration is that we’re working with a business model that’s essentially archaic” and favors building gas-fired plants over substations that allows more renewable energy to the grid. 

“They’re basically brushing us off,” Stone said.

 


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