Kingston businesswoman Mary O’Donnell is urging the town to flex its political muscle against NStar by filing a home-rule petition with state lawmakers to block the utility from charging electricity producers a fee to connect their operations to the power grid.
Two renewable-energy projects are pending in Kingston that would benefit from the legislation. O’Donnell plans to construct three wind turbines and a solar field on 105 acres near the former municipal landfill. And D&C Construction Co. of Rockland and California-based Borrego Solar Systems have been granted a lease by selectmen to set up and run a wind turbine and a solar field, respectively, on the former landfill, in exchange for annual payments and a break on energy costs to the town.
But NStar charges fees for connecting to the area’s power grid and infrastructure improvements, whether it’s a private developer or municipality, and the charges can sometimes be hefty, said Richard Kleiman, a member of Milton’s Wind Energy Committee and now a consultant for O’Donnell. In Milton, NStar recently shocked local officials with its initial $1 million-plus estimate for connecting a municipal wind turbine, Kleiman said.
“NStar is slow to go through the process, then they come back with a jacked-up cost estimate to stymie the project,’’ he said of Milton’s experience. “Right now, we’re still waiting for their final estimate. It’s going to be a make or break for the project.’’
Kleiman said political pressure has been applied by legislative representa tives in his town, so the final cost is expected to be considerably lower. He said he believes the fees and slow review time by NStar are attempts to discourage renewable-energy projects.
NStar spokesman Michael Durand said Kleiman’s comments were a “misrepresentation’’ of the situation in Milton. “The cost estimate we gave was preliminary,’’ Durand said. “We’re still in the review process.’’
NStar’s position is that the cost to its infrastructure to connect a new power source should be borne by the applicant, not the utility or the customer. Company engineers have to take the time to properly review such hookups and their impact on the grid, Durand said.
But D&C Construction vice president Duncan Peterson called the connection cost for the wind turbine he’ll build in Kingston a “huge wild card,’’ noting that most project expenses have already been calculated by the time NStar comes in with its fee.
“If the town had the home-rule petition, it would get rid of that grey area,’’ Peterson said.
The petition being suggested to Kingston officials is not outside the realm for such special legislation, said Massachusetts Municipal Association legislative official John Robertson, although he can’t remember another one exactly like it.
Under the state’s home-rule provision, municipal leaders can ask the state for legislation that will only affect only their community, usually after gaining local approval.
“It sounds to me like it’s fair game if Kingston feels they have a good case to have a law made for the town,’’ Robertson said.
O’Donnell said the petition to block hookup fees for local energy projects would be “a way to say, ‘Come on, NStar, what about doing your part for renewable energy?’ ’’
She said NStar has been stalling her project, asking for studies she’s paying for, and she has yet to be told the amount of the hookup fee. “They could give me a hookup fee that croaks the project,’’ O’Donnell told Kingston’s Board of Selectmen at its meeting Tuesday.
Durand maintains NStar does not discourage green energy. Making the developer pay for hookup and upgrades related to the project coming on line is the fair way to go, he said.
“We have more renewable-energy projects connected than any other utility in the state,’’ said Durand. “But if the home-rule petition were to succeed, it would cause us to shift the recovery of expenses to all the customers in our service area. To take the cost to upgrade our system for a development and charge our customers is just not fair.’’
Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said NStar’s slow review time may be related to a current surge in solar and wind projects. “We are working with relevant regulators, utilities, municipalities, and developmental interests to iron out the process so such complications may be a thing of the past,’’ she said.
Kingston’s town counsel, Lisa Mead, said the town legally can petition the Legislature to block NStar’s hookup charges, but she warned the utility isn’t likely to simply allow it. NStar had already fired off a warning letter to Kingston officials before the home-rule petition was discussed Tuesday night, she said.
“NStar says it is unconstitutional under both federal and state standards,’’ Mead said, and the town could end up in a legal battle with the utility giant.
Kingston is not responsible for any of the connection fees now at issue, since its wind and solar projects are under leases to private developers.
But local officials don’t want to see those ventures, in the works for years, killed by prohibitive hookup costs. Selectmen said they prefer, for now, to wait before proceeding with a home-rule petition against NStar, although it will remain an option, if needed, down the line.
“I would hesitate to poke the giant in the eye right now,’’ said Mark Beaton, chairman of the Board of Selectmen and the town’s Green Energy Committee. “I see home rule as a last resort, but if it starts to look like the town has been wronged, then it might be appropriate to go to Town Meeting.
“The home-rule petition is the silver bullet we have in the chamber,’’ Beaton said. “But we may not have to fire it.’’
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