CAPE COD – Wind turbines are turbulent, at least politically, but solar power – that’s smooth sailing.
Not so fast. Last month the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative unveiled $200 million worth of solar projects to be constructed by Broadway Electric of Boston all over the Cape Vineyard, that’s in addition to 10 earlier “phase one” projects. Well, the brakes have been slammed on some and others are tottering.
In reality, it was 54 small projects that added up to 67.7 megawatts of generating capacity. They must run a gauntlet of local hurdles and some have already tripped. Meanwhile, NStar, which has to hook up and account for the electricity generated under provisions of the Green Communities Act of 2008, is engaging in “flagrant neglect,” according to Charles McLaughlin, CVEC president and assistant town attorney of Barnstable. NStar is understaffed, said Ron Collins of CVEC and lagging on connecting and accounting for the renewable projects all around the state.
“If the project is delayed and the savings to the towns are delayed and there is [consideration of] the present value of money, it’s time to do some serious saber rattling,” McLaughlin told the CVEC board of directors last Thursday. “There is a lot of money towns should start to realize this year. It’s a very real question that if the damage becomes real and tangible and monetized, we (should) ask statewide if we want a class action from all municipalities.”
NStar is being inundated with projects, attempting to benefit from renewable energy credits and net-metered electricity in Massachusetts.
“Interest in renewable projects is very high now,” said NStar spokesman Mike Durand. “We support renewable energy and we work very closely with developers on the projects. That process can be time consuming for a number of reasons. We work as quickly as we can.”
Some of the projects are large for where they are, such as Brewster’s planned array at the transfer station, and the carrying capacity of the grid must be upgraded. All projects need study.
“They require a complete engineering review of each project to make sure it can be safely connected to the grid,” Durand explained.
NStar is also concerned with the reliability of the service.
“It’s a back and forth dialogue between the utility and the developer,” Durand noted. “It’s in everybody’s best interest to review the project before it is connected to the grid.”
McLaughlin noted that Barnstable’s wastewater treatment facility has both turbines and solar panels.
“We haven’t seen a dime in credit and it’s been operating a year,” he declared, adding “NStar hasn’t gotten their act together.”
Durand said anyone with a complaint about their bill should contact the utility directly.
Time lost is money lost, CVEC believes.
“We have no regulatory hammer, no penalties for going beyond or exceeding (the 120 deadline for action),” said Maggie Downey, CVEC’s clerk.
“We can create our own hammer,” McLaughlin countered. “It’s negligent of NStar not to hire sufficient staff and [not] to abide by the [120-day] tariff is unacceptable and causing monetary damage to the towns.”
He suggested getting Cape “political liaisons” involved to spur the utility on. Another board member suggested calling NStar in for a chat.
“What NStar will do is say this is where the project is, we’re short-staffed, this is what the process is,” Downey answered.
And that process won’t move any faster.
“It’s a matter of sheer numbers of projects, and there is a queue,” Durand said. “And you work on that to the best of your ability.”
In addition to their arguments with NStar, individual projects have stumbled. Several needed special legislation to build solar arrays on water department land and have been dropped, such as Harwich’s where the water department said no, but Orleans, Yarmouth and Sandwich are proceeding.
Barnstable’s Independence Park solar plans are “complicated” due to potential wetlands issues. Chatham’s airport array needs to be relocated since it is partially shaded by the communication tower. The Harwich Community Center project “is gone.”
Nauset Regional High School has roof seam issues impacting its plans.
“Broadway Electric says they’re going to walk away from the project,” Collins said.
Parts of the proposed solar array at the Orleans transfer station are in the shade and may have to be relocated.
“One of our opponents was voted onto the board of selectmen,” Collins added.
Brewster is planning a solar array in Commerce Park, on the site where the twin 400-foot turbines were supposed to go but the topography is too up and down.
“There would be a tremendous amount of cutting and filling,” Collins said. “If it was a piece of property worth developing, Brewster would have sold it off a long time ago.”
There are also potential wetland issues. A vice president of Broadway Electric is supposed to tour the site soon.
“Hopefully, it works out and we can put up as many as we can,” Brewster Selectman Dan Rabold said Monday night. “There will be some clearing of land.”
The town’s project at the transfer station is awaiting an upgrade by NStar to handle the electric capacity.
In addition to the above headaches, the amount of renewable net-metered electricity NStar and National Grid are required to buy is capped at 2 percent private and 1 percent from the public).
“We’re currently oversubscribed if you count the stuff in process,” CVEC attorney Jeff Bernstein said.
The state Senate has passed a bill lifting both caps to 3 percent but the bill is stagnating in the House.
“The house is not happy with the bill in entirety,” Bernstein noted. “The Senate changed the contracting process for renewables.”
“We should be contacting our reps to let them know it’s a priority issue,” said Rich Elrick, Barnstable Energy coordinator.
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