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Solar agenda 2013

By doing its homework on solar power, the Hampshire County Council of Governments is showing its utility and relevance. In the months to come, 20 area communities can push ahead on projects able to reduce or eliminate municipal electric bills. We hope they do.

Indeed, there is power in collaboration. When it rose from the ashes of county government, the Council of Governments set out to help small communities tackle daunting projects. While the Valley’s largest communities have gone it alone on solar power, relying on their larger city and town hall staffs to lead ventures into this relatively new technology, the council has been an ally to the region’s small communities.

The council first built an impressive track record as a go-between on electrical power generated somewhere else. It has helped communities reduce their power costs by enabling them to buy wholesale electricity.

In its new solar venture, the council hopes to increase this region’s capacity to generate power. The bigger communities of Amherst, Easthampton and Northampton are ahead on this, but in the coming year, expect towns across the area to get into the game.

Going in, town officials will find a lot to like. The three Massachusetts solar companies recruited by the council as partners are offering to build solar arrays at no cost to the host communities. Those companies benefit by getting locations and, because the projects are town-sanctioned, can expect easier approvals. That basic formula enabled Easthampton to turn a capped landfill into a solar farm in a 10-year contract with Borrego Solar Systems of Cambridge.

The city buys a portion of the power produced at a sharp discount. Amherst is in the process of bringing solar arrays to its closed landfill as well.

It’s doubtful that the small towns represented by the council could have invested all the time it took Eric Weiss, the group’s sustainability director, and his colleagues to advance the solar project to this point. In the past year, the council worked with member towns to identify potential sites for photovoltaic arrays. At that point, 38 towns identified 110 locations.

Where might solar panels go? Not surprisingly, the towns own a lot of open space with good sun exposure, from rooftops at schools and town buildings to open land and capped landfills.

From there, the outside solar companies studied the locations; the council eventually chose to work with three companies — Ameresco Inc. of Framingham, Broadway Electric Co. Inc. of Boston and American Capital Energy of Lowell.

While the council has done a lot of the prep work, it now falls to leaders in the 20 towns to pursue these opportunities. Whatever happens next is up to the people of Ashfield, Belchertown, Cummington, Deerfield, Goshen, Hadley, Huntington, Leverett, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton and Williamsburg.

Under-staffed towns deal with a lot of problems. The financial incentives should help push solar projects to the top of the list. The council is pledging to remain involved and help communities negotiate the still-complex path to deals.

There is a faint similarity between the arrival of these solar companies and the prospect of casino gambling in western Massachusetts. Outside companies are looking for sites to do what they do, with the acquiescence of host communities, which can expect financial sweeteners.

The parallel breaks down there. With the solar projects, people of this region get green energy and their towns or cities put unused or underused public spaces to use at little or no cost and receive access to cheaper electricity. Local households win.

With casinos, the house wins. But that’s another story.

Residents of the towns involved in the council’s solar push should speak up if they believe this is the right course. Better yet, they should volunteer to help their communities work out the details.

Judged by output, these installations would be modest. They would be small but meaningful and would help bring solar technologies into wider public view and acceptance.

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