The first solar project built along a major highway right-of-way on the East Coast has begun producing energy to power the town of Carver’s water-treatment plant.
Built along Route 44 on an easement awarded by the state to the town, the 99-kilowatt project makes use of the highway’s east-west orientation to erect an array of south-facing solar panels in a nearly ideal location in terms of power-generating efficiency.
Carver’s town planner, Jack Hunter, who attended a national meeting with federal officials on how to make good use of highway corridors, said the only other solar project on a highway right of way is in Oregon.
The project is a high-efficiency use of underutilized property that solar power advocates and government officials say can serve as an example for future projects on major roads such as the Massachusetts Turnpike. For Carver, the renewable power supply will save about $3,000 a month in electricity costs, Hunter said.
“It’s clearly the right thing to do for our environment,” Selectwoman Sarah Hewins said last week, “and it’s the right thing to do for our country — every bit of renewable and alternative energy we use is that much less dependence on foreign oil. And finally, it is a demonstration project that hopefully will make it possible to show there are good places to site solar.”
The 600-foot-long series of linked panels went on line earlier this month, after NStar examined and approved its connection to the power grid.
When the solar array produces more power than needed by the water- treatment plant, the surplus will be sold to the grid. When the plant needs more than the panels are producing, the utility will provide it. And in accord with provisions of the state’s Green Communities Act, intended to promote renewable-energy projects, the utility will provide the power at a substantially below-market rate.
Built by SolareAmerica LLC, the solar array sits on a 1¼-acre site east of the highway’s Route 58 interchange, occupying about a quarter of the 25-year easement granted to the town. Originally planned to produce 117 kilowatts, the project was scaled back to 99 kw because projects of 100 and more require a higher level of review by utilities, sometimes leading to long waiting periods.
A 20-year power purchase agreement reached between the town and SolareAmerica made the project economically viable for both sides. The deal insulates the town from rising energy costs to operate its water system, guarantees the company a buyer for its energy, and gives both parties a known figure for budget planning.
The solar project is expected to provide almost all the power needed to run the water-treatment plant, and almost half of the North Carver Water District’s entire energy budget.
But the project appeared in danger earlier this year when an initial participant dropped out for financial reasons, Hunter said.
“After Waterline pulled out, we went out to bid. No one bid on it, and we were on our last gasp,” he said. The town was facing an April deadline to have a signed contract with a developer or lose a $150,000 state grant. Hunter credited Pennsylvania-based SolareAmerica with saving a project that had been three years in the planning.
The idea to collect solar energy from panels set up along Route 44 arose after energy consultant Glen Berkowitz, hired to explore ways to produce green energy on town-owned conservation land known as the Cole property, concluded the wind wasn’t strong enough there for a power-generating turbine. The town was taking steps to create the new water district, its first municipal water system, on the Cole property, and looking for a source of low-cost renewable energy to run it.
Berkowitz came up with another option — solar panels along a highway right of way.
He told town officials that the undeveloped ground alongside a state highway had been used only once before to site a solar-power project.
“He said, ‘How about this idea?’ ” Hunter recalled Berkowitz saying. “And so we ran with it.”
But after two companies chosen through the public bidding process pulled out over funding issues, the town had nothing built and no developer as time ran out on its grant.
Acting at the recommendation of another company, SolareAmerica managing partner John Scorsone said, his company stepped in largely because of the Carver project’s value as a demonstration project.
“We wanted to enter the Massachusetts market,” Scorsone said recently. “To do that and make a splash, we took the challenge. . . . It’s such a great utilization of unused land, to use the highways in such an efficient way and produce renewable energy.”
The company believes there will be more projects built on roadsides where panels can be situated for high efficiency, Scorsone said. Carver’s installation can also be expanded to two ranks of panels along the 1,200-foot-long, 50-foot-wide easement, quadrupling its energy-generation capacity.
The company also installed underground power lines connected to the treatment plant for the new water district. Created at least in part to attract new business to the town’s Route 44 corridor, the North Carver Water District began pumping water a year ago, and now serves about 60 customers, both residential and commercial.
“Businesses know it’s a good deal,” Hunter said.
State officials said the Route 44 solar project is a good deal, too, helping the town while promoting the state’s goal of expanding sustainable energy sources.
“This project is an example of the administration’s commitment to making smart investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Mark Sylvia, commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, said last week.
Sylvia said he’s looking forward to the official ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the project, scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 5 at the water treatment plant on Pleasant Street.