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David Chenail said he was worried his land would lose value being next to a solar array.

North Adams Officials Query Solar Project Agreement

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Blue Wave principals Eric Graber-Lopez, left, and John DeVillars made a presentation to the City Council and other city boards on Tuesday at the reguest of Mayor Richard Alcombright.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city could have a 4.6 megawatt photovoltaic system in operation by next fall, if permitting runs smoothly.

That was the message from principals of Blue Wave Capital, John DeVillars and Eric Graber-Lopez, who answered questions at an unusual public hearing with the City Council on Tuesday.

Members of the council, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Airport Commission were joined by citzens in questioning the solar project, which is expected to cut the city's electrical costs by half.

"When the switch is flipped the city has the opportunity to save significant money over the next 20 years," said Mayor Richard Alcombright. "We have only to benefit with zero cost to the city."

The project is similar to the one in Adams, in which the developer installs and operates the system (bearing the full cost), the utility buys the power and the municipality receives "energy credits" and a set rate. The energy generated should cover the city's needs in all municipal buildings, schools, recreational facilities and streetlights at a projected savings of $11 million over 20 years.

Among concerns raised by officials were guarantees in costs, site placement and responsibilities of both the city and the developers.

The power purchase agreement includes a 20-year contract, at which time the city can buy the system, extend the agreement or ask the company to remove the system and make any remediations necessary. The city also has the option to purchase the system at the seven-year date.

Alcombright said the city has chosen not to tax the installations and instead take the full advantage in energy savings, set at 7.5 cents a kilowatt.

DeVillars said the system would be maintained throughout the agreement and that the city should not see significant reductions in power generation.

"The panels have an amazing shelf life, 20 years from now they'll be generating 80 percent of the energy they'd be producing today," he said. "We'll be obligated to remove the system if the city doesn't want to buy it."

In response to questions, DeVillars and Graber-Lopez said that the federal energy credits and depreciation schedules, intregal parts of the financial package, are guaranteed for projects developed by 2016.

"Our incentives are perfectly aligned with the city," said Graber-Lopez, who added that the city's saving money was dependent on the generation of energy, which is how Blue Wave makes money.

The system will be installed at four sites: Drury High School, the landfill, the old waste-water treatment plant and the Harriman & West Airport.

The energy produced from the system will be equivalent to ...

Powering 460 homes

Planting 80,000 trees

Removing 7,500 cars from road

Saving $11 million
There was particular concern over the panels being installed at the airport because of glare and wetlands.

"Solar is quite modest in terms of its impact," said DeVillars, relative to reflection from parking lots and trees, because they are designed to absorb sunlight. Solar panels are popping up at airports around the country and the Federal Aviation Administration has developed guidelines for their installation.

Graber-Lopez said the panels are currently designed outside the wetlands buffer zones but that there was room to adjust to Conservation Commission permitting.

Airport neighbor David Chenail expressed disappointment that the land would not be used for airport expansion and expressed concern that the solar array would lower his property values.

"I wish that land was going to better use than solar panels," said Chenail. "No one will want to build a house where I am and look at solar panels ... The airport land is beautiful and my land is more beautiful."

Resident Robert Cardimino asked if the land at the former waste-water plant would be better used for industrial. Alcombright said he would not support that because it would require a railroad crossing at prohibitive cost, and put an industrial operation in people's back yards.

Councilor John Barrett III agreed, saying explorations of putting a assisted living facility there was stymied by the rail issue. He was more concerned about the project being sidelined by National Grid, which has to hook the system in.

"They are holding these projects up all over the state and it's a disgrace," said Barrett, referring to National Grid and other utilities. He asked if the fall timeline and the financing would hold.

Graber-Lopez said they were aware of the problem and had designed the arrays to be in tune with the already installed electrical wiring.

"National Grid is overwhelmed with interconnect applications," he said. "We are in close communication with them but it is always an issue to interconnect."

Talks between Blue Wave and the city have been ongoing for 18 months; the project is about to enter the permitting phase, which should be completed by mid-June.

DeVillars said he and Graber-Lopez would be speaking to pertinent officials but also would be available for speaking with residents.

"We are committed to working with neighbors to mitigate any visual impacts," he said. "We will be talking to anyone who wants to talk to us."

The presentation can be found here.

In other business:

► The council approved the transfer of $12,000 from the land sale account to purchase a house at 154-156 Protection Ave. with the intention of demolishing it and either straightening the corner or using it for parking for the Alcombright Athletic Complex. Barrett asked if the agreement could be renegotiated to include the demolition to avoid prevailing wage. Alcombright said he would check.

► Heard an update on the bring-your-own-bottle policy that has been stewing for nearly a year. Councilor Keith Bona said the city solicitor had been asked to develop and ordinance and provided the specific bullet points.

► The mayor addressed the decrease in parking revenue brought forward last summer by resident Mark Trottier, who chastised the council for failing to take action. Alcombright said the parking enforcement would fall to the new commissioner or police chief and that the city was looking into updating its dated parking meters.

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