Town can lease land, school roof for solar use

Goal is to lower electricity costs

The tiny coastal town of Cohasset could join the growing ranks of communities that allow private developers to install solar panels on public rooftops and land, in exchange for the promise of cheap electricity.

And while similar plans have met stiff resistance in some towns - Carver residents, for example, want a bylaw to outlaw commercial solar arrays in residential neighborhoods - the Cohasset proposal sailed through a Special Town Meeting last week.

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Voters overwhelmingly agreed to allow town officials to lease both the roof of the Cohasset Middle/High School and the closed landfill for $1 a year for up to 20 years.

The plan depends on private developers taking advantage of federal tax credits and other financial perks intended to stimulate the “green’’ energy industry - as well as related state rules requiring utilities to purchase a portion of their power from renewable sources.

Few details are worked out, but Cohasset officials hope the town will be able to buy back electricity from the solar arrays at a discounted rate, and get a share of profits from power sold to the commercial electrical grid. Just how much money that could amount to, however, is unclear.

“I don’t know [how much savings there would be], to be honest,’’ said David DeGennaro, business manager for the Cohasset public schools. “It depends on how many solar panels they can throw up there [on the roof] and how the proposals come back.’’

He said engineers are working to determine whether the roof of the school could support a solar array, and what size it should be. Similar study is needed at the landfill on Cedar Street to make sure the cap wouldn’t be compromised by work at the site.

‘I think it would be great. I just hope it works out.’

David DeGennaro Business manager for Cohasset public schools
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“I think it would be great,’’ DeGennaro said of the project, which was proposed by the School Committee and the town’s Alternative Energy Committee. “I just hope it works out.’’

DeGennaro said that last fiscal year the bill for electricity at the middle/high school was about $215,000. The town budgeted about $674,000 altogether on electricity this fiscal year, with about $380,000 of it for all school uses, according to Town Manager Michael Coughlin, who supports the solar project. “This is a great opportunity for the town - putting solar panels at the landfill is the type of “trash talk” that makes the taxpayers happy,” he said.

There are almost 300 solar installations on public buildings in Massachusetts, according to Kate Plourd of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The projects vary widely in size and productivity.

In Brockton, for example, 1,400 solar panels sit on 3 acres of what was once the Brockton Gas Works. When “Brightfields’’ opened in 2006 on the once-polluted site, it was billed as the largest solar array in New England. It produces a substantial amount of electricity: 542,252 kilowatt-hours annually, according to the municipal webpage.

In Milton, voters approved leasing the roofs at four schools to Broadway Electric for solar panel installations. Work at one elementary school, the Tucker, is complete and the panels are producing electricity, according to William Ritchie, the town’s facilities director. But the project still needs a final approval before the town can use the power, he said.

The town itself installed 250 solar panels on the roofs of the Collicot-Cunningham Elementary School complex about two years ago, and that electricity is saving the town about $10,000 a year, he said. The project cost about $300,000, with 90 percent of the money coming from a state grant, he said.

Other south suburbs with solar arrays on public spaces include Braintree, Bridgewater, Dedham, Duxbury, Norwell, Quincy, Rockland, Walpole, Westwood, and Whitman.

Elsewhere, in Scituate and Easton, officials are in the process of getting private developers to build solar plants at the towns’ closed landfills. Scituate officials estimate the town could save about $200,000 a year in utility costs; Easton estimates its savings at about $225,000 annually.

Both the Scituate and Easton projects are bigger than what Cohasset is considering.

Cohasset is talking about solar arrays at the school and landfill that each would produce about 1 megawatt of electricity per hour, according to Tanya Bodell, who chairs the town’s Alternative Energy Committee. That would produce enough electricity to power about 150 homes for a year, according to Plourd.

Bodell said the size of the solar installations hasn’t been set, though. And while she hopes the town will be able to get electricity at about 25 percent of the market cost - because of government subsidies provided to the private developer - that figure also isn’t solid, she said.

Both the Cohasset Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee endorsed the project, although the Capital Budget Committee said it couldn’t make a recommendation because it had been left out of the loop and had no information about the proposal.

Responding to a question at Town Meeting about the impact of bankruptcies in the solar industry on the project, Bodell said the town would be sure to include protections for itself in any contract.

There are many more steps to take before the plan becomes a reality, she stressed. The time frame is “long enough to do the appropriate level of due diligence, fast enough to get it done quickly, and with enough deliberation to ensure an appropriate power pricing arrangement that benefits the town,’’ she said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at
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