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Solar project passes test in Sunderland

Passions flared at a special Town Meeting Wednesday as residents authorized the two 20-year leases for 0.62 acres at the elementary school on Swampfield Drive and 2.37 acres behind the public safety complex on River Road.

The leases enable Broadway Electrical, a 75-year-old Boston-based solar developer, to put a solar array expected to generate 193,966 kWh annually at the elementary school and another array expected to generate 481,034 kWh annually by the public safety complex.

The townspeople also authorized the Board of Selectmen to spend $7,500 from available funds for legal and consulting services associated with the solar installations.

The two solar farms are expected to generate 675,000 kilowatt hours in its first year, which would result in a savings of $17,346. This represents 25 percent of the town’s annual electricity cost.

Over 20 years, the projected savings is $400,000. This is based on the assumption that both utility rates and the price to Broadway for power would escalate at 2 percent per year, according to Beth Greenblatt, consultant to the town. The energy generation is sent to the utility, which monetizes it. The savings are based on a series of assumptions — such as utility rates and lease payments — of how the energy markets will escalate.

The project would also offset 668,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Under the contract, Broadway can only sell solar energy to Sunderland. If it wants to sell to others, it needs Sunderland Town Meeting approval. The contract also protects the town if the company is bought out. The town can refuse the new company owner. Or the town could seek damages and purchase the solar arrays.

There is also an educational portion to the contract. As part of the program, Broadway would provide two LED flat-screen monitors at to-be-determined town sites. Broadway would also give $5,000 for the town to buy the renewable education program called NEED for students.

There were many questions raised before the vote.

One concern was tying up land for 20 years. Selectman Thomas Fydenkevez said at the end of the 20-year lease the land has to go back to its original agricultural use.

Residents questioned how technical advances in solar arrays would impact the town. Fydenkevez explained that it is in the interest of Broadway to maintain its technology to increase the efficiency of the solar arrays.

One resident worried about the impact on the rural character of the town.

“We have addressed all the zoning and planning issues,” said Selectman David Pierce. “I see this as in keeping with the agricultural heritage. Before we farmed cows. Now we’re farming the sun.”

To great applause, resident Tom Zimnowski pointed out how the town has historically been a producer of tobacco. “For 100 years, we were the number one producer of cancer. I’d like to give this project a chance to produce clean renewable energy,” Zimnowski said.

The Finance Committee also had reservations. It previously took two votes on the leases. The committee voted unanimously the first time against the solar farms. On a second vote, it voted 3-1 in favor as it obtained more project information.

“The issue I have is the 20-year contract,” said committee member Bruce Bennett. “We’re locking into a price. It’s hard to enter any contract for 20 years.” What persuaded the committee is the money the town would earn.

The Energy Committee, on the other hand, gave its full backing to the project.

“The Energy Committee was created to guide Sunderland to renewable nonfossil uses of energy. This is a step in the right direction,” said member Aaron Falbel. “This is too important to let slip through our fingers.” Sunderland joins its neighbors with similar energy plans. In Whately, a 1.5-megawatt solar farm has been approved for a 14.6-acre parcel at 228 State Road. In Deerfield, the town is negotiating contracts with two solar developers — Broadway or American Capital — to put a solar array at the capped landfill.

The details of the proposals will be released in coming weeks. The special Town Meeting is only the first step. Broadway Electrical will have to go before the Planning Board for a special permit. At that time, the town planners will vet the specifics, such as what kind of solar panels will be used.

The Planning Board had prepared the town for a future solar proposal last year when it drafted a new bylaw townspeople approved in April. The bylaw 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.

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