A 20,000-panel solar power-generating field installed at the site of a former town landfill in Canton is still catching flak from unionized electricians despite being lauded by local and state officials as a hugely beneficial project for everyone.
“This project has turned the old landfill site into a generator of power and economic development,” state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan said in a recent interview. “It’s a win-win, as the project is expected to save Canton thousands of dollars on its power bills and help limit the Commonwealth’s reliance on foreign sources of energy.”
State Department of Environmental Protection officials have also endorsed the 5.6-megawatt plant, one of the largest solar farms in New England and operating since late summer.
But the project remains a bitter pill for members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, which contends licensed electricians did not play enough of a role in constructing the facility.
Sean M. Callaghan, business agent for IBEW Local 103, said his organization is not convinced the solar installation is properly wired. He said licensed electricians were not adequately involved in the process, specifically in the installation of the support racks for the nearly 20,000 solar panels spread over 15.5 acres.
“This is a huge public safety issue,” he said. “Letting Canton get away with it means other municipalities will, too.”
The ongoing controversy began last winter after three union contractors recommended by IBEW Local 103 missed a deadline to submit bids to help install the panels. The project manager awarded the multimillion-dollar job to a non-union electrical contractor, according to Frank McMahon, a principal at Southern Sky Renewable Energy, the Boston-based company selected by the Canton Board of Selectmen in June 2010 to develop the solar field.
In February, the local union electricians filed a complaint with the Massachusetts State Board of Examiners, Division of Professional Licensure, alleging that the facility’s support poles represent a hazard because they were not erected by licensed electricians. They also mailed a postcard to Canton residents in early March that featured an image of an explosion, with the headline: “Is there a time bomb being built in Canton?”
Canton officials at the time scrambled to calm public confusion triggered by the postcard’s safety allegations. Selectmen deemed the allegations “inaccurate and untruthful” in a formal statement, and apologized to residents upset by the allegations.
The state board responded to the union’s complaint about six months later, fining Southern Sky’s contractor, Gemma Renewable Power, $2,500 for hiring non-licensed electricians to install the metal racking system. The company is contesting the finding and has refused to pay the fine. A hearing date has yet to be set for the appeal.
“Our position has followed the letter of the law,” McMahon said in a recent interview. “Everything required to be installed by electricians was installed by electricians. We are sure we are going to prevail when all is said and done.”
The union, meanwhile, has continued to press its case on the website www.cantonsolarexposed.com. The dispute has been covered at length by The Canton Citizen newspaper, which has also published letters from both sides.
Reaction in town to the solar facility has been largely favorable since it went online in August, according to McMahon, who says this is the type of renewable energy project that can provide a savvy solution for many of the hundreds of closed landfills across the state.
“The town takes an asset that is costing them money because it’s just sitting there, and solar developers come along and take that asset and provide a new source of revenue,” he said.
Selectwoman Avril T. Elkort said most locals felt the negative mail campaign in March was “overkill.” There are no safety concerns in town, she said, while there is excitement about the financial gains the facility brings to Canton.
“We are delighted it is up and running. It is an excellent use of the land,” she said.
The capped dump had sat unused for more than two decades while town leaders debated its possible use — ultimately rejecting proposals that included baseball fields and a new public works facility.
Now officials say Canton could net about $16 million from Southern Sky over its 25-year contract, which includes the land lease, rebates for power generated from the site, and savings on the town’s electric bills.
Several other communities south of Boston also have or are developing solar energy projects on landfills — including Carver, Duxbury, Easton, Holbrook, and Scituate.
Governor Deval Patrick has set a goal to see Massachusetts install 250 megawatts of solar generation capacity by 2017.Meg Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.