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Housatonic solar field reduces power costs for Great Barrington, Cheshire

The solar field below the Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic, built last year on a brownfield, is saving the town and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District each between $70,000 and $90,000 in annual electricity costs.

Housatonic — On roughly five acres off Van Deusenville Road, a massive earthworks project is underway for a solar farm that will generate electric bill credits for the towns of Great Barrington and Cheshire, and save them a whole lot of money.

Lodestar Energy co-founder Jeff Macel told The Edge the 1,000-kilowatt field has agreements with the towns after recent state legislation raised the cap on net metering, the process by which public or private entities can purchase “credits” from solar developers, thereby significantly lowering their electric bills. The energy generated from the solar fields is added to the electric grid with hook-ups to utility poles.

Lodestar is also building an almost three-megawatt solar field at the old truck stop off the Mass Pike in West Stockbridge. The off-taker for those credits is the town of Haverhill on the other side of the state.

Equipment for solar panels sits waiting in boxes. The solar farm will generate 1,000 kilowatts. Photo: Heather Bellow
Equipment for solar panels sits waiting in boxes. The solar farm will generate 1,000 kilowatts. Photo: Heather Bellow

Lodestar’s Housatonic field will sell credits to the Great Barrington Housing Authority, which runs several affordable and senior housing complexes.

Macel said Lodestar, also co-founded by Jamie Smith, sells credits to 27 different housing authorities across Massachusetts. Credits from its solar field on the Great Barrington Fair Grounds property also goes to a housing complex near Boston.

Macel said savings for these off-takers is around 40 percent of what they would usually pay for electricity.

“The good news is this savings,” Macel said. “It helps the housing authority, and theoretically it lowers people’s taxes, and the DHCD (Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development) gets the surplus and can then improve their facilities.”

Macel said Lodestar was lined up in a queue to be able to add power to the grid and sell credits, since there was a cap that had been met statewide, thus stalling and slowing solar and other sustainable energy power projects. But August 2016 legislation that raised the caps freed them to start work. “We were part of that grand bargain,” he said of the state’s negotiations with utility companies to lift the caps.

This latest Housatonic solar project comes at a time when the Great Barrington Planning Board and Town Planner’s office are taking a close look at zoning for a number of reasons, one of which is solar development. Town Planner Chris Rembold said the review is not in response to this or any other project “either built or in the pipeline, but in response to a proposal for a commercial-scale facility located in a residential zone.”

Mounds of soil were pushed around to make way for about 4 acres of solar panels on a roughly 5-acre slice of land in Housatonic next to the Housatonic railroad tracks. Photo: Heather Bellow
Mounds of soil were pushed around to make way for about 4 acres of solar panels on a roughly 5-acre slice of land in Housatonic next to the Housatonic railroad tracks. Photo: Heather Bellow

Rembold said that, so far, all the construction has been on industrially zoned land. He said the question has to do with solar development on farms so farmers can supplement their income.

“Solar and farmers like the same type of land: flat and sunny,” he added. He said the question is how to help farmers and protect residential areas from industrial-style encroachment.

Avon, Connecticut-based Lodestar recently built another field in Cheshire with credits going to that town, as well as West Stockbridge and a housing authority near Boston.

Great Barrington Assessor Christopher Lamarre said he didn’t know how much in property taxes Lodestar would pay for the Van Deusenville project since the building permit had only recently been pulled.

But Lamarre and Macel said full and fair value property and personal property taxes would be paid for the site. Other towns, Macel said, often draft “payment in lieu of taxes” agreements with solar companies, and those fees are often the same value as estimated property taxes.

West Stockbridge Town Administrator Mark Webber said the deal with Lodestar will save the town about $9,500 per year.

Lamarre said solar fields, particularly those constructed on vacant or polluted sites, are good for towns and taxpayers. He noted the solar field below the Rising Paper Mill in Housatonic, built last year on a brownfield with credits that are saving the town and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District each between $70,000 and $90,000 in annual electricity costs.

“What are prospects of a brownfield generating revenue?” Lamarre said. “Otherwise, it would be sitting fallow.”

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