CONCORD — The Executive Council on Tuesday approved a $1.2 million grant from the state's renewable energy fund for a solar project in Peterborough, but not without protest from Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, whose tough questioning of project proponents prompted a mild rebuke from the governor.
Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, said the plan by Water Street Solar of Lowell to install ground-mounted solar panels near the Peterborough Waste Water Treatment Plant would create the largest photovoltaic array in the state.
"It will also set an example for other municipalities looking to save on energy costs," she said.
The array will generate nearly one megawatt of power (947 kilowatts), and will be nearly twice the size of the largest existing solar generator in the state — a 500-kilowatt array atop the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport parking garage, according to Jack Ruderman, director of the Sustainable Energy Division at the Public Utilities Commission.
Peterborough will use the electricity for its waste water treatment plan, community center and other town buildings, with the surplus going into the grid for sale as solar-generated energy. The town is guaranteed a cost of 8 cents per kwh, compared to its current average cost around 9 cents per kwh.
Water Street Solar will own and operate the generator.
Sununu questioned the estimated savings for Peterborough from the project, and called the approval "a drastic mistake." He said the project sponsors did not document the projected savings of $240,000 to Peterborough in electricity over the next 20 years.
"You guys are creating assumptions so you can get to a positive return and get this approved," he said.
That led to an angry response from PUC Chair Amy Ignatius. "It's fair for you to disagree," she said, "but it's absolutely unfair to suggest we are somehow cooking the process here to get to a certain result."
Sununu continued to press the senior project developer Joe Harrison from Water Street Solar on Peterborough's energy costs, after which Gov. Maggie Hassan said, "I think it's important to address the people who come here to provide us with information in as supportive a way as possible."
Pignatelli said after the meeting that she was "appalled" at the way Harrison was treated.
Sununu was unapologetic. He acknowledged the state law that requires the PUC to promote solar energy and other renewables, but said public funds are being thrown away on a project that was good for Peterborough but a poor investment for the state.
"The law says we have to do solar," he said after the meeting, "but it doesn't say we have to do bad solar."
Harrison admitted in a later interview that Peterborough does not have a guaranteed savings contract. "They are taking some risks," he said. If market prices drop below 8 cents per kwh, Peterborough is stuck at 8 cents. "But if prices go up to 11 cents, then they save more."
Ruderman pointed out that generating more solar electricity to help utilities meet renewable energy requirements is an additional benefit from the project, along with reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 522 tons per year.
The total cost of the project is estimated at $2.6 million, with the balance raised by Water Street Solar, a subsidiary of Borrego Solar of Lowell created exclusively to manage the Peterborough project.
The proposal was approved on a 3-1 vote, with Pignatelli, Councilor Chris Pappas, D-Nashua, and Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, in favor.
Construction is expected to start in the fall and wrap up in the spring of 2015.
In other action, the council confirmed three new judges to the Superior Court: Charles S. Temple of Concord; Lawrence A. MacLeod Jr., of Lebanon; and David A. Anderson of Portsmouth.
David S. Forrest of Temple and Elizabeth M. Leonard of Concord were confirmed as judges to serve on the state's Circuit Court.
The council accepted the resignation of Thomas E. Bamberger as judge in the Ninth Circuit Court in Nashua.