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Open land tempting for solar projects

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2011

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Solar energy developers are looking for Carver, long the state’s cranberry king, to become the new hotspot for solar energy projects.

Time and place are converging as the year moves into its final quarter because developers are facing a Dec. 31 deadline on a federal renewable energy incentive program that covers 30 percent of development costs and makes solar projects attractive to investors. Officials say the availability of open land owned by cranberry growers has caught the attention of developers.

“Carver may become the solar capital of New England,’’ Jack Hunter, the town’s planning director, said recently. “The reason we’re getting so many of these projects is the cranberry industry is not doing well. After the industry faltered, the growers were selling for house lots. With no housing market, now it’s solar,’’ he said.

Four projects are in play in Carver, Hunter said. “If they can’t get it done by Dec. 31, it will go away,’’ he said.

State energy officials agree the tax incentive program encourages developers to begin projects before the end of the year.

“If they are 5 percent complete [by Dec. 31], the tax incentive is converted to a grant,’’ said Meg Lusardi, director of the state’s Green Communities Division. That means developers get their money up front.

Carver selectmen met with Waterline Industries of Seabrook, N.H., Tuesday to wrap up final details on a solar energy installation to be built along a stretch of state highway in north Carver. If the project is completed, it will be only the second solar power installation along a divided highway nationwide. The state’s Department of Transportation has already given the town permission for a municipal solar project on the site to produce power for the north Carver water treatment plant.

The Route 44 solar installation will consist of solar panels wired together electrically so that all the energy is sent to a unit converter and fed into the power grid, said Jeff Haydock, Waterline’s director of business development. The project’s 117 kilowatts will be sold to the town at a below-market rate, he said.

“It will mean a great return with no upfront costs to the town,’’ Haydock said.

The town has been seeking a developer to build the project since the idea was voiced several years ago by alternative energy consultant Glen Berkowitz. The state has awarded the town a $150,000 grant from federal stimulus funds to back the project. Officials said the money will be used to defray the construction costs.

In addition to the Route 44 project, Mike Paduch, owner of Crystal Lake Garden Shop on West Street, is seeking a deal with Texas-based Entero Energy to produce solar energy on an old bog no longer profitable in today’s competitive market, in which cranberry prices are low. As proposed, the project would generate 750 kilowatts to serve the town’s elementary school.

“We’re negotiating with them,’’ Hunter said last week. The company has put up what’s called “peer review money’’ to enable the town to hire an independent consultant to review the deal.

Barry McNeill, who owns cranberry bogs off Purchase Street, has proposed building a 3.1-megawatt solar installation. The project’s prospective developer, MainLine Solar of Pennsylvania, is bullish on states whose regulations promote investment in renewable energy.

“For land owners in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Jersey,’’ the company says in its publicity literature, “open land equals maximum revenue generation for those who choose to implement photovoltaic solar technology.’’ The company says “solar farms’’ are profitable from both energy savings and the sale of high-value renewable energy credits to conventional energy producers.

(Producers of energy from renewable sources such as solar earn “renewable energy credits’’ that can be sold to big energy companies, Lusardi said. A state law requires power companies to acquire a certain percentage of their total energy from green sources, thereby creating a profitable market for the renewable energy certificates offered by solar energy producers, she said.)

McNeill’s proposal will be the subject of public meetings before the Planning Board on Tuesday and the Conservation Commission the following day.

If the project goes forward, it would supply most of the energy Carver needs for its facilities - schools, office buildings, library, police, and fire stations. In total, the town uses approximately 4.5 megawatts.

The fourth, and most ambitious, project is a proposal by Southern Sky Renewable Energy of Boston to lease one or more privately owned properties in north Carver off Route 44 to build an 18-megawatt solar installation. Southern Sky was selected last year by Canton to construct a solar facility on that town’s landfill covering 15 acres and producing 5.6 megawatts.

In Carver, the company has approached owners of two properties, the long-closed Ravenbrook Landfill and a nearby sewage treatment plant, about acquiring them for the project, Hunter said. The company is conducting an environmental analysis of the sewage plant. If it finds the property is environmentally problematic or too costly to clean up, it may limit its scope to the Ravenbrook property, he said.

Southern Sky says solar energy makes sense both environmentally and economically. “There is an overwhelming business case to be made for developing and investing in green power generation - particularly solar photovoltaic energy generation,’’ the company says.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.