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Constellation Energy suggests solar field at treatment plant

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AYER — The town’s present energy provider made a pitch for a solar Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA) project aside the town waste- water treatment plant.

Constellation Energy representatives outlined their vision at an Energy Committee meeting.

The town’s current electric contract with Constellation Energy lapses in 2013. Already included in the contract is language that provides for a PPA agreement with the town. As a result, a Constellation Energy PPA would not be subject to a detailed procurement process, said Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand.

Rick Kilbourne, Constellation’s manager of Solar Energy Development, explained the company must earn or purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) showing concerted efforts to switch gears from fossil fuels into renewable energy sources. Simultaneously, a federal tax credit expires at year’s end permitting the deduction of 100 percent of the capital costs for a solar array.

“We obviously have a very large tax appetite,” said Kilbourne, who said the coal-fired plants are “not exactly environmentally friendly.” The company has built solar projects for eight years but stepped up production a year and a half ago.

To qualify for the tax credit, a company must own a facility for at least six years and 11 months. “Massachusetts is the best place to do solar for many reasons (including the) price for power. You guys pay a lot for power up here,” said Kilbourne. “And, I’m sorry, that’s our company, but to us it’s a competitive market. Even though it’s colder up here, that’s why solar is being built up here.”

Kilbourne drew puzzled looks when he pressed the committee as to why they were pursuing a PPA in Ayer in the first place. Kilbourne explained that a solar array reduces the cost of purchasing electricity but does not reduce the underlying energy demand itself.

Ayer is racing to become a Green Community, entitling the town to state grant dollars for further energy-efficiency measures. To win the designation, Ayer must, among other things, document a 20 percent drop in municipal energy usage over a five-year period. Kilbourne advised the Energy Committee that a solar PPA, in and of itself, does nothing towards the town’s Green Community drive.

“Why did the town look into it in the first place?” asked Kilbourne. “That can help us determine what may or may not be the best route to take.”

“I get a lot of calls on these,” added Constellation Energy Business Manager Craig Brazell about interest in PPAs. “Especially with municipal budgets. If there’s a way to save in addition to Green Communities, then it’s worth pursuing.”

“A PPA came to us,” explained Selectman Carolyn McCreary. “We thought that was very attractive and a great money saver for the town.”

Pontbriand added that by becoming a Green Community, the town hopes to land grants for further conservation measures that would otherwise not be possible. “Our accounts are pretty tight. We don’t have a lot of room to do these projects.” He added, “In town, there’s a lot of movement and support in favor of renewable energy.”

Kilbourne proposed the construction of a 1-megawatt, 5-acre, ground-mounted solar field by the wastewater treatment plant on Brooks Street with energy produced being consumed “behind the meter.” That means that electricity generated on site would be used directly to feed the energy-hungry, round-the-clock plant operations. Another approach is to place a solar field atop the capped landfill and sell the energy generated back to National Grid by so-called “net metering.”

In such an event, the town would receive a coupon with 14.5 cents for every kilowatt hour generated. The coupons earned can then be applied by the town against the Constellation Energy bill. Ayer currently pays 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

Another approach is to simply earn rent and not a credit for energy produced, but Kilbourne admitted the financial benefit would be greater with a net metering approach. “Solar is just another avenue to handle cost but not consumption,” said Kilbourne. “Solar just makes it cheaper to keep the light on.”

Mary Spinner, chair of the Capital Planning Committee, liked the idea of a landfill lease to “Get a little help on that solid waste enterprise fund.” Kilbourne said such planning could begin after the wastewater treatment plant project for a 2012 launch.

Constellation Energy uses its own money, versus finding investors, so there’s no concern with proceeding and then the “financing falls apart” said Kilbourne. “We’re not going to be the cheapest, but our experience ranks higher.”

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