Better known for its sea breezes, sailing community, and coastal landscape, the small town of Dartmouth can now boast of another — more modern — outdoor wonder: the largest amount of solar power in Massachusetts.
The South Coast community now has 9.28 megawatts of solar power production installed around the town, putting it ahead of much larger municipalities such as Boston, according to the latest count by state energy and environmental officials.
With several large solar farms, and more than 100 projects altogether around town, Dartmouth became the state’s leader thanks to a decision by town officials several years ago to explore the burgeoning field of renewable energy. Town Administrator David G. Cressman said Dartmouth officials concluded that solar panels would be less intrusive than wind turbines and would also spin off revenue to town coffers.
“We just got out in front, I think, of a lot of communities and made a push in that direction,” Cressman said.
Most of the solar installations in Dartmouth are rooftop residential panels that generate a tiny amount of electricity. The bulk of the power, however, comes from just a handful of large commercial projects, including one on the town landfill that supplies electricity to Dartmouth municipal buildings. In addition to saving money by getting low-cost, locally generated power, Dartmouth profits by selling excess electricity back to its local utility.
Dartmouth is just one of many municipalities going big into the solar business after Massachusetts established aggressive renewable energy goals. On Wednesday — after Massachusetts had reached its first goal of 250 megawatts goal four years early — Governor Deval Patrick set the bar higher: 1,600 megawatts of solar capacity by 2020.
Panel installers and other solar advocates say Massachusetts municipalities have also been influenced by government-backed incentives and state programs promoting solar. For instance, the state created Solarize Massachusetts, which encourages businesses and communities to join buying groups to save on bulk purchases of solar panels; and Commonwealth Solar, which offers rebates for projects.
Earlier this week, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr. lauded the success of those efforts.
“When you look at the top 10 list, it shows, quite frankly, that solar is taking off in Massachusetts,” Sullivan said, “and you see Dartmouth kind of leading the way right now.”
In Dartmouth, Cressman said the commercial solar projects were good business moves by the town; for example Dartmouth gets power from one of the installations for 8 cents per kilowatt hour, and is allowed to sell any excess power generated back to NStar for about 13 cents per kilowatt hour. Dartmouth also collects taxes on solar projects built within town limits.
“We have a little business here that we project will generate us about $13 million in savings over 20 years,” Cressman said.
In the last few years, Con Edison Development, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison Inc, has put up two projects totaling 4.5 megawatts of capacity. Borrego Solar Systems Inc., meanwhile, has constructed four projects in the area including the one at the Dartmouth landfill.
Moreover, Dartmouth has another commercial solar project of 6.8 megawatts about to begin construction soon, Cressman added, that when finished will mean all of the town’s buildings could be powered primarily by solar.
Borrego senior project developer Joe Harrison said his company is attracted to communities such as Dartmouth because it gets a sufficient amount of sun, is big enough for the necessary infrastructure to support solar panels, and has lots of available open space. These type of communities, Harrison added, make up a huge part of the solar market, in large part because local officials have realized that solar can generate local revenue.
“Towns like Dartmouth are smart to jump in and start benefiting,” he said.