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Hopkinton

Committee lobbies for solar farm

Hopkinton’s Sustainable Green Committee is pushing the town to act quickly and use a portion of town-owned land for a solar power-generating installation that the group says could save taxpayers up to $10 million over 20 years.

The committee proposes leasing the land on Fruit Street for 20 years to a private company that would build and operate the solar panel farm to generate electricity. The town would then get credits to offset its electricity costs, and at the end of the lease would have the option to buy the operation for $1, sell it, or dismantle it, the committee says.

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The key to the savings, however, is acting in time to take advantage of state and federal green energy incentive programs that committee members say may not be available down the road.

“It’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to take advantage of these benefits,” Sustainable Green Committee member John Keane said in a presentation Monday night that was shown on the town’s cable-access station, HCAM-TV.

It will be up to voters at the annual Town Meeting starting May 6 to advance the project, by granting the Board of Selectmen authority to lease the land, and approving a zoning change to allow the solar operation. It would then be up to selectmen to negotiate a contract with a private company to develop and operate the site.

With less than a month before Town Meeting, however, the Board of Selectmen not only has questions about the economics of the proposal, but also broader questions about whether tying up two sections of the Fruit Street property is the best use of the biggest parcel of town-owned land.

“I would say that the conceptual plans would generate some meaningful savings, but there are some caveats to the economic review,” board chairman Benjamin L. Palleiko said.

“What we haven’t done yet is to nail down the costs of setting up the whole project; that review is ongoing,” he said. He hopes to get those answers by Town Meeting.

Beyond the financial issue, however, Palleiko said, selectmen are wrestling with whether this is the most appropriate use for the land.

“Should we take the approach that we should try and review the whole master plan, or charge ahead?” he asked.

The 257-acre Fruit Street property was purchased by the town in 2002, and athletic fields, a sewage-treatment plant, and a town well have been sited there.

A plan to build a new school on the property as a replacement for the Center School was defeated by Town Meeting voters two years ago. A new committee has been formed to come up with a plan to build a new elementary school or completely renovate Center, and while it is unlikely the committee would again seek to build on Fruit Street, having the solar farm there does not preclude it, according to the Sustainable Green Committee’s presentation.

The original plans for the Fruit Street land called for part of it to be used for senior and affordable housing, according to Elaine Lazarus, the town’s director of land use, planning, and permitting. One of the parcels eyed for the solar farm had been targeted for housing. But over the past year, Lazarus said, the town has added more than 200 affordable units, through the Legacy Farm development and another housing project proposed for Lumber Street, making significant progress toward meeting the goal of having 10 percent of the town’s housing stock being classified as affordable.

“The Fruit Street property is still a good place for housing, but the solar facility is for 20 years — it doesn’t preclude the town putting in housing later,” she said.

The Sustainable Green Committee calls its proposal an “economic opportunity,” and says while its main motivation is financial, the farm would reduce the town’s carbon footprint by 2,500 tons annually.

The committee looked at other locations for the solar farm, but determined the 23 acres of “sand-pit” parcels on Fruit Street would be ideal for solar installations, and few trees would need to be cut to achieve proper sun exposure.

The proposal calls for the solar panel farm to be landscaped and fenced, and not be visible to people driving to the Fruit Street soccer fields.

According to the committee’s presentation, the town pays approximately $1 million in municipal electricity costs. With the solar farm in place, backers say, the town would be credited 16 cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity it produces, and then pay just 7 to 9 cents per kilowatt hour for the town’s electric needs, saving $400,000 to $600,000 a year.

These calculations are based on current state and federal tax incentives to encourage the use of renewable energy sources.

“They won’t be in place forever,” Keane said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.

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