The smashing of glass and the quiet thump of newsprint landing in bins at the Norfolk Recycling/Transfer Station provide an acoustic backdrop for another renewable energy project. What you will not hear, unless you are a few feet from the inverters, is the sound of power from the sun being turned into usable electricity.
On June 20, a 1.6-megawatt solar panel system had been in operation at the transfer station for one year. In that time, town officials have discovered that the sun’s rays can provide not just warmth, but about $200,000 in revenue, which has led to the creation of several town jobs and helped Norfolk with its budgeting.
“It’s so great to see something we worked hard on come to fruition and produce clean energy,” said Selectman Rob Garrity, who sits on the town’s Energy Committee. “We saw through this project there is money to be made in solar.”
Garrity credits the Norfolk Energy Committee with not only working to conserve energy in town, but also in finding creative ways to produce energy, such as by harnassing solar power.
“We made an effort to save money and make money,” Garrity said. “From the get-go, it’s been ‘Let’s make some energy.’ ”
The transfer station provided the perfect place: a mounded, grassy area that until 20 years ago was the dump; it is now capped. Solar panels sit on concrete pads atop the grass, and the second phase of the project sits a short distance away, on land that was cleared of trees and leveled to make way for more panels. In total, the project encompasses about 12 acres of transfer station land, which sit in a solar energy zoning district approved by Town Meeting in 2011.
“What else are we going to do with this? It’s useless land,” Public Works director Bob McGhee said of the site. “You can’t build on it. Why not put harmless pad panels up there and generate the sun’s free energy?”
The project keeps on giving. McGhee said the trees felled for the second phase were made into wood chips, while the rocks from the site were ground into gravel and the fill provided loam. Those materials are available to residents and are used by the Public Works Department for town projects. The money generated from fees for the materials has provided money to buy two compactors for the transfer station, McGhee said.
“In the development and construction of this was born organic recycling,” said McGhee, who also has visions of turning the solar field and its recycling offshoots into an educational opportunity, complete with a small parking area and a gazebo from which to view the solar field.
There was pushback from some residents who did not want to see the trees felled for the project, but Garrity calls the solar project a better use of the land. He also said that one nearby resident complained that there was glare coming off the framing before the panels were installed. The problem went away, however, once the panels were in place.
The two solar fields at the transfer station have produced just over 2,000 megawatt hours of electricity in the year they have been in operation. The town leases the land for $1 to Constellation Energy, which owns, maintains, and operates the solar panels and the converter that turns the energy into electricity. The converter connects to NStar wires, which feed the electricity to the grid, Garrity said.
Constellation sells the town the electricity created, and the net metering credit generated by the solar field is attributed to the town. Those metering credits are larger than the amount the town needs to spend on municipal electricity, yielding a profit of about $200,000, Garrity said. Constellation makes its profit by selling renewable energy credits back to utilities like NStar, which are required by the state to obtain a certain amount of the credits.
The money gained through the solar project meant that the town was able to restore a part-time police officer and add part-time human resources and planning department positions. Meanwhile, a building permit fee paid by Constellation gave the town more cash to add to its stabilization fund. This spring, when King Philip Regional School District requested more than the town expected in operations funding, the town dipped into the stabilization fund for $93,000, Garrity said. Doing so helped Town Meeting avoid a Proposition 2½ override in May to fund the schools, he added.
“This really helped us balance the budget this year,” Garrity said.
Officials are working on another solar project that could bring even more cash into the town’s coffers. Currently, an unusable, oddly-shaped parcel of town-owned property, if paired with an abutting commercial piece of property, could become another solar field in a year and a half. That property backs up to the Gold Street Well near Medway and Myrtle streets, also in an approved solar energy overlay zoning district.
This time, the town plans to lease the land to a company that would put up its own solar array, Garrity said. The town would make money through the fee for the land, instead of collecting the metering credits and selling them for a profit.