Hook up Wendell solar

Published: 1/8/2019 9:37:06 AM
Modified: 1/8/2019 9:37:12 AM

The solar hopes of one of our greenest and smallest communities were dashed recently by National Grid utility, which denied an interconnection agreement for a project on the cusp of completion. “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 of their own.

Two years in the making, the Wendell Energy Committee spearheaded a 220-kilowatt solar array that was to go on a sunny, 1.33-acre town-owned Wendell Depot Road lot. The ground-mounted panels would be owned by and benefit its approximately 50 owners. Residents of woodsy Wendell would have first rights to buy into the co-op and receive the same incentives that owners of typical roof-installed systems receive. Besides saving them money, the project would contribute to the community’s commitment to help curb global warming.

But the very popularity of solar-generated electricity has jeopardized its business model as a groundswell of projects seek permission to hook up to the grid – that amorphous infrastructure operated by major utilities that takes solar-generated electricity and sends it out to paying customers. One such utility, National Grid, says it is studying a total of 63 megawatts of interconnection requests from commercial projects – many of them from out-of-state companies that do not support the local economy. All have asked to be connected to three area substations. To accommodate all these requests, says National Grid, major system modifications would be needed. That will be expensive – estimated by National Grid at $3.9 million, plus or minus 25 percent – and National Grid is not alone among utilities seeking to recoup the cost of upgrades from ratepayers or from the owners of the solar projects necessitating them.

At the same time, the state encourages renewable energy, including solar power. Its Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program paves the way for an anticipated 1,600 megawatts of new solar installations. “The SMART program will allow Massachusetts to expand its leadership by significantly increasing solar capacity while lowering costs for ratepayers,” Gov. Charlie Baker has said.

To put Wendell’s project in perspective, its planned 220-kilowatt array is equal to a mere .2 megawatts, enough to serve about 50 homes. That’s less than a quarter of one megawatt. “We were told, ‘If you keep it under 250 kilowatts, it would be no problem,’” said Greg Garrison, president of Hatfield-based Northeast Solar, which designed the Wendell project and its legal underpinnings. Now, according to Garrison, “It could be dead in the water.”

Once again, working on a small scale seems to penalize Franklin County. Just as rural school districts are at a financial disadvantage to big-city school districts, now it appears that micro solar is being lumped in with large-scale solar projects.

National Grid is predicting lengthy delays (on the order of multiple years, with the potential to be upwards of five years) for the construction time frames of new solar projects, effectively stymieing a pipeline full of projects at various stages of completion.

Garrison hopes to amend the state’s new SMART program to allow for new incentives to encourage smaller projects. That’s an idea that our legislators should get behind.

In the meantime, let Wendell’s solar project proceed.

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