AYER — In talking through its proposals for providing solar-energy options for the Town of Ayer, Constellation Energy Solar Energy Development Manager Rick Kilbourne and Business Manager Craig Brazell asked the Ayer Energy Committee on April 14 why the town ever considered a competing solar proposal pitched by Muni-Sun LLC of Ashburnham. Former Ayer Town Administrator James Kreidler is Muni-Sun’s sole employee.
On March 30, the state Inspector General’s Office invalidated Muni-Sun contracts with Ayer and eight other communities to participate in a joint RFP process to land solar field developers in their towns to enter into power purchasing agreements (PPAs).
“Why did you consider a group process? What were the perceived benefits?” asked Kilbourne. “That was the first thing that stuck out in my head. How it was represented I didn’t necessarily agree with.”
“This is all sort of new territory for all of us,” explained Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. “I’m the town’s procurement officer. I’ve done a lot of procurement, but not on energy projects. It’s new for all of us.”
“The philosophical perception was that there was strength in numbers with eight of our sister communities versus going it alone. Also, it was presented to us that it would increase the competitiveness of the RFP,” said Pontbriand. “I understand where you’re coming from in hindsight.”
My first thought was “‘I own a company. I can win nine towns at once. I’ll buy the panels in bulk cheaper.’ We do, too, because of the number of projects we build,” said Kilbourne. “The only way it would work is if all towns went with the same company. That was the nuance in that contract. There was a lot of things we didn’t like.”
In recent years, Ayer has flirted unsuccessfully with a string of corporations pitching some sort of photovoltaic component for the town’s energy portfolio. One PPA salesman was quietly shuffled away when it was revealed he was a Level-2 sex offender with an order to stay away from children at a time talk included placing a solar array atop the Washington Street school complexes.
Johnson Controls proposed a small, symbolic solar component to a townwide energy plan, suggesting a small solar setup atop the West Main Street firehouse. Officials learned the capital costs were steep compared to the number of years to realize any energy savings from the small array. Later the town nixed its contract with that company.
Then Muni-Sun’s star rose and fell over the course of two months this winter. In the aftermath of the “Muni-Sun episode,” Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand told the committee that the Kreidler contract is now “off the table and is no longer in effect.” An alternative idea of banding the nine communities together to forge forward is “on hold. Some of the towns are deciding their next steps.”
Meanwhile, Pontbriand said dozens of firms, including Constellation Energy, are “expressing their interest” and reaching out to Ayer directly following a Muni-Sun prebid conference staged at Ayer Town Hall a couple of months ago. “There was a lot of interest in the Ayer sites. But we’re sort of back to square one in a sense. Everyone seems to be in a regrouping period as far as a group procurement process goes. And I think we’re regrouping.”
Constellation Energy, the town’s current electricity provider, explained why it did not get involved itself with Muni-Sun. “We had conversations with them. But upon review of the documents, there were a number of reasons on why we did not or had not planned to participate in that RFP,” said Kilbourne.
“We elected to pull out of that bid for multiple reasons,” said Brazell. “It really wasn’t as clean if you spend the resources to do the project. Most of the towns have now contacted us.” Brazell said Gardner is one case in point. Constellation Energy is Gardner’s municipal power provider.
Kilbourne suggested communities would benefit more with Constellation Energy than with Muni-Sun. “We did feel that we would be able to offer a more cost-effective solution by not participating in that. Our end offer will be lower.”
“We’ve had a couple of false starts — Muni-Sun, and there was another instance before my arrival with another company that wasn’t fully vetted out and there were problems there,” said Pontbriand. He praised Constellation Energy’s reputation but wanted to ensure “all our ducks are in a row and everybody’s on board.”
“We thought the town of Ayer would be very sour on the solar experience,” said Kilbourne.
“No, we’re very strong people,” laughed Pontbriand. “We’ve used to getting batted around,” added McCreary.