GROTON -- Groton Electric Light Department, which gets nearly half of its power from "carbon-free" sources like wind turbines and hydro dams, is exploring the feasibility of building its own $3 million solar farm.

But it's not doing it simply to be a better steward of the environment. The motivation is to avoid sudden rate increases in case lawmakers who are pushing for mandated renewable energy for municipal electric agencies succeed, Groton Electric Light commissioners say.

"What we are looking at today is a risk to us," Commission Chairman Kevin Lindemer said of the potential mandates and penalties for not fulfilling the requirements, as he explained the solar-farm project at the Commission's meeting Tuesday night. And the Commission is trying to figure out whether building the solar farm and getting ahead of the potential mandates would pay off for residents who buy electricity from the town agency, the commissioners said.

The Commission presented its potential 1-MW solar farm project off Nate Nutting Road in a public hearing Tuesday night. The hearing came in the wake of the Electric Department's filing of paperwork with the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs to see if such a facility could be constructed at the site.

The solar farm will expand more than 6.7 acres of the 16 acres that local developers Bob Lacombe and Dave Moulton donated to GELD in 2002. The site is located by the existing high-tension power lines running through the area.


Advertisement

What prompted the idea to develop the land into a solar farm is the political pressure existing on Beacon Hill to hold municipal electric agencies to the same standard as investor-owned utilities, such as National Grid and NStar, according to GELD Manager Kevin Kelly. Under state law, conventional grid companies must get 7 percent of the energy they distribute from renewable sources, and the percentage is set to gradually increase to 20 percent by 2020. And certain portions of the renewable energy must come from solar sources.

Had that rule been applied to a municipal-electric agency today, it would cost GELD $398,000 more, or an average of $85 to $90 per user, to pay for the penalty charged for those not in compliance. How much more it would cost GELD in 2020 if the mandate is extended to municipal agencies is the commissioner's concern.

Suppliers that cannot meet the obligation are currently allowed to buy Solar Renewable Energy Credits -- which the state issues to owners of solar power equipment -- to offset their carbon footprint. There are such credits issued for wind energy, as well.

Municipal-electric agencies are exempt from these requirements for now. GELD gets 46 percent of its power from a combination of nuclear, hydro and wind, but the hydro plants it uses do not meet the state's renewable criteria and it sold wind credits to reduce the cost of owning turbines.

Commissioners say GELD would need to sell the solar credits it would receive for its solar farm to help pay for the construction. But they also believe lawmakers could not claim municipal agencies must be forced to become green if they are actually getting energy from what the state considers renewable.

Kelly said the solar-credit market has recently collapsed, as numerous developers rushed to build solar farms across the state to cash in on their credits. The credit that sold for 60 cents per kilowatt just a few years ago is now 15 cents. GELD would need the price to stay at a minimum of 30 cents per kilowatt for the next 10 years to pay for its solar farm and partner with a tax-paying entity to take advantage of federal tax credits for solar equipment.

Lindemer and Commissioner Rod Hersh, as well as Kelly, stressed that the project is far from a done-deal. In fact, they wouldn't be interested in the project at all if it proves financially unfeasible.

The idea of clearing the forested 6.7 acres has so far concerned some environmentally minded residents, including Ann Card, who lives near the potential project site and attended the hearing.

"I would hate to see this," Card said. "I would hate to see the 6 acres cut down and see ugly panels" lining up there, she said. 

She also said she would prefer an area closer to her house developed than the other side proposed for the solar farm, saying that side has wetlands and many turtles.

John Llodra of Smith Street said, however, that sacrificing 6.7 acres of trees could offset production from other energy sources elsewhere.

"A small amount is OK with me," resident David MacInnis said of land clearing, saying he supports the idea of Groton having a solar farm, setting the cost factors aside. Llodra and his wife, Grace, also suggested various alternative ideas, such as using local homes' and municipal buildings' rooftops for solar power instead of building a solar farm.