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Solar panels at old dump get OK from Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 03. 2015 11:21PM

MANCHESTER — A team of renewable energy development companies has received the green light to move forward with a plan to build a solar installation at the former city dump, the first such project in the state.

The Board of Mayor and Alderman voted on Tuesday to support a joint proposal from three companies to build an array of 3,500 panels on a portion of the 93-acre landfill off Dunbarton Road. The companies — ReVision Energy, American Capital Energy and Renewable Energy Development Partners, LLC — would bear the expense of building and maintaining the array, while the city would commit to purchase electricity for 20 years at a set price below its current rate.

The project, which would generate about 1 megawatt of electricity, is considerably smaller than the one developers proposed last fall. Under the earlier proposal, the array would have generated 2 to 3 megawatts of electricity.

Still, at 1 megawatt, the project would allow the city to reclaim bragging rights as home to the largest solar installation in the state. The output would be slightly larger than the recently completed installation at the wastewater treatment plant in Peterborough, which is now the largest solar project in the state, overtaking the panels at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

City Facilities Manager Kevin O’Maley told the aldermen’s committee on energy contracts that time was of the essence because the state Public Utilities Commission had indicated it would fund the project with a $1 million grant, but the money would likely go to another community if a plan wasn’t put forward this week.

The limited availability of public financing is what prompted the developers to scale back the earlier proposal, a company official told the committee.

O’Maley noted the $1 million grant came from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds, the availability of which have been subject to “political” considerations in recent years.

O’Maley said while the project was on a relatively small scale, it fit with the city’s push for improved energy efficiency. “It’s not a home run, but if we can hit a lot of singles and doubles we can do pretty good too,” he said.

O’Maley stressed that the proposal was not a final contract between the city and the developers, and the terms could be further negotiated.

Under the proposal, the city would purchase electricity at a rate just below 6 cents per kilowatt/hour, which would result in $26,500 in savings in the first year of the project, according to the developers’ calculations. The city would also receive an annual tax payment of $5,000. The savings in future years would rise based on the increase in electricity rates.

O’Maley acknowledged that a decline in rates was a “risk,” but said he believes it is unlikely they would go below the locked-in rate for any significant period of time.

In Peterborough, by comparison, the town is locked in to a rate of 8 cents per kilowatt/hour, and will receive $4,000 a year, according to the developers.

Over the length of the 20-year agreement, the city’s savings would range from $1 million to $1.5 million, according to the developers.

At the committee meeting, Alderman Keith Hirschmann, who represents Ward 12 where the landfill is located, said he saw the project as a first phase that could be expanded in the future.

He also noted that the property is ill-suited to other uses. “The topography — it’s challenging,” he said. The committee recommended backing the proposal, and later in the evening the full board voted to do so after a brief debate.

Mayor Ted Gatsas indicated he was disappointed the plan had been scaled back. “There’s no question I’ve been talking about solar panels on the landfill for the better part of seven years, (but) I think the previous proposal had $100,000 in revenue for the city,” he said.

Gatsas also noted that the developers could reap considerable profits through federal tax incentives for alternative energy projects.

But Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur said he believes the project helps the city “look 21st century,” and he welcomed the developers’ proposal. “God forbid we have capitalists in this country,” he said. “Come on in; we’d like to do business with you.”

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