Wendell to have first-ever community solar array in state

For the Gazette
Published: 7/1/2018 8:54:08 PM

WENDELL — A Hatfield solar company is gearing up to break ground for a first-of-its-kind, community-owned solar project this year in this tiny town of around 800 people.

Northeast Solar, of Hatfield, is building the 990-panel, 324.6-kilowatt solar array, and expects to start construction around Labor Day.

The project is a municipal cooperative, meaning Wendell residents will have the option of buying-in and becoming owners of the array.

The cooperative is expected to be popular in Wendell where many rooftops are inadequate for personal, family-owned solar panels due to shade from surrounding woods.

“Over two-thirds of residential properties in Massachusetts are poor sites for solar. A solar cooperative allows those households to switch to clean energy,” said Greg Garrison, president of Northeast Solar.

The solar array, having been approved at a special Town Meeting in February, will sit on a 1.33-acre lot at 97 Wendell Depot Road — a property now under the Select Board’s control in order to host the third-party project. The cooperative will allow 50 members — all Wendell residents — to join.

Members will own a portion of the panels and array structure, and pay fees for maintenance and administration, as well as a lease. Those fees will flow through the land owner, the town, which in turn pays for the solar array Northeast Solar installs.

According to Garrison, Montague, Northampton and Easthampton have all expressed interest in the same model, and Northeast Solar is also looking at locations in Greenfield and Leverett.

Joining the cooperative — a legal corporate body in Massachusetts — takes three steps, all of which will be facilitated by Northeast Solar.

“Our job is to create the legal framework, and install the array,” said Garrison.

The first step is submitting a letter of intent to Northeast Solar, as well as a $500 deposit.

Garrison said Northeast Solar has already received letters of intent from interested residents, and will be drawing up contracts with residents — the second step in joining the cooperative — shortly after Wednesday, July 4.

During the contract phase, residents will be able to choose how many panels they wish to buy — and therefore how much of the array they will own. Garrison declined to state how much members will have to pay per panel, and said that negotiations will be private.

He added that the cooperative is worth joining because members will be eligible for current and future tax incentives and will save money after a few years — when the money saved on electric bills offsets the cost of buying panels. Members will also be “democratically” switching to clean energy.

“This model, which we’ve been working on for over three years, is the only way we can make solar democratic,” Garrison said. “The people own and administer this array.”

The final step once the panels have been bought is for the new owners to actually join the cooperative. Cooperative members will receive power directly from these panels and the cooperative will have a 20-year lease of the town-owned land, with options for 10-year extensions.

The cooperative is expected to fill up quickly, Garrison said, because it is small and only allows for 50 members.

“Owners in this system will receive a lower purchase price than standard residential installations,” Garrison said. “Co-op owners will receive the federal tax credit, Massachusetts SMART incentives, and on-bill credits to their electric bill. Within a few years, co-op owners will have fully recovered the cost of ownership and will be able to reinvest their energy dollars back into their local community.”

Over the life of the array — 20 years — members of the cooperative will save about $1.3 million on energy expenses, money that will go back into the local economy, Garrison said.

According to Garrison, Northeast Solar, a company of 17 people, plans on building larger community solar cooperatives allowing more members if the Wendell site is successful.

Once construction begins, the project is expected to take six to eight weeks to complete.

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