A place in the sun

With its vision for a solar array atop the town’s capped landfill, Sherborn joins communities hoping to tap low-cost power source

Daniel Glickman, chairman of Sherborn’s Energy Committee, looks over the town’s former landfill, which he sees as ideal for a solar array. Daniel Glickman, chairman of Sherborn’s Energy Committee, looks over the town’s former landfill, which he sees as ideal for a solar array. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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A grassy mound rises behind the dumpsters and storage sheds at the Sherborn Transfer Station. On this sunny but breezy day, the only interruptions to the grass are a few ventilation pipes poking out of the top of the capped-off former landfill.

The nearly level parcel sits above the treetops of the surrounding woods, offering no shade to visitors.

What Daniel Glickman, chairman of the town’s Energy Committee, sees is potential for acres of solar panels to turn the sun’s rays into cheap and clean electricity for a community in need of cost savings and new revenue.

“The way it works is, we find a developer to come in and set up, which of course, is not as easy as it sounds,’’ Glickman explained. “Somebody would come in and put in the factory of solar panels. We would guarantee we would buy the solar electricity from them, so they get a guaranteed buyer and we get discounted power at a fixed price.

“Clean, cheap energy,’’ he said, created on land “that can’t be used for anything else.’’

Sherborn is one of five area communities considering building electricity-producing solar arrays on former landfill sites, according to the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The others are Acton, Marlborough, Maynard, and Norfolk.

Interest in power-generating photovoltaic installations has swelled in recent years, with the amount of electricity drawn from the sun in Massachusetts growing from just 3.5 megawatts in 2007 to a potential 92 megawatts in 2011, based on municipal, residential and commercial facilities already built or under contract to be completed by year’s end, said Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the state energy agency’s top official, Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr.

The Sherborn solar effort got a shot in the arm recently when it was named one of 21 communities to win Green Community status from the state, qualifying them for thousands of dollars in grants aimed at renewable power and energy efficiency. As a Green Community, Sherborn is eligible for at least $125,000 in grants, but the awards can be adjusted based on population and per-capita incomes.

For Sherborn, that translates to a potential $137,450 toward green projects like the feasibility study needed before it can install its solar array, and further guidance on how to draft its request for proposals from companies keen on serving as its partner in the effort.

“Now we have to come up with our list of priorities for projects around town,’’ Glickman said. “The money is allocated to us as long as we find projects that qualify.’’

Massachusetts has named 74 Green Communities among its 351 cities and towns. They qualified by launching programs to cut energy consumption by 20 percent over five years, adopting more energy efficient building codes, purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles when available and practical, and changing zoning ordinances and permitting procedures to encourage alternative-energy operations, whether for generating power, or conducting manufacturing or research in the field.

“On the whole, municipalities want to be greener, they want a sustainable community,’’ said Meg Lusardi, director of the state’s Green Communities Division. “To qualify requires the community to come together to meet the criteria. It requires collaboration at all levels. They must pass the stretch code, which requires a Town Meeting. There are zoning bylaw changes. They have to have buy-in from the entire community. It’s really a grass-roots movement. There’s a real pride in it.’’

Marlborough officials are planning to study the feasibility of putting a solar array on the grounds of the city’s waste-water treatment plant to help defray some of the energy cost there, following the lead of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

“The MWRA has one out there off Cedar Hill. I toured it two months ago. It is very impressive, actually,’’ said the city’s public facilities director, John Ghiloni.

The MWRA put the 496-kilowatt solar array to work earlier this year providing some of the electricity needed to run its John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant, which handles drinking water for Boston and 47 other communities.

“That facility uses a very energy-intensive process using ozone to treat the drinking water, so every bit helps,’’ said MWRA spokeswoman Ria Convery.

The $2.1 million project - fully funded by federal stimulus money - covers 2 acres with 2,420 solar panels and generates about 5 percent of the 11.5 million kilowatts of electricity used by the plant in a year, or about $82,000 of the plant’s $1.5 million annual electric bill, Convery said.

Marlborough used a $15,000 Green Communities grant to fund its study, which must be completed by next June, Ghiloni said. Generally speaking, Marlborough wants the solar energy facility to help defray the energy costs of the plant but has yet to determine whether it would be more cost effective to build its own solar array, or to lease the land to a third party and buy the power at a discounted rate from them.

In Concord, officials are tackling the solar energy question on several fronts. A 48-kilowatt array recently went up on the Willard School, funded in part with a $150,000 state grant, while the town’s Municipal Light Board has set the goal of cutting Concord’s reliance on energy generated by fossil fuels by 20 percent per decade.

As of last year, Concord drew just 10 percent of its electricity from renewable resources, said Hugh Lauer, chairman of the Municipal Light Board and the town’s Solar Siting Committee.

“We want to get that up to 30 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030. And, yes, that is very ambitious,’’ Lauer said.

Concord also is in the midst of identifying potential sites to build up to five 5-megawatt solar arrays. With one utility-grade array going up every five years, the town eventually would have a respectable 25 megawatts of power generation within its own borders, eliminating transmission and capacity charges from drawing off the regional power grid, Lauer said.

“If we achieve 25 megawatts of solar array in this climate, at this latitude, that would give us close to half our power on a hot summer day, when demand is at its peak,’’ Lauer said.

With Concord consuming some 180 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, the long-term goal of generating 25 megawatts through solar arrays would represent about 20 percent of the town’s energy consumption per year, he said.

However, the clamor for cleaner energy sources does not always translate into immediate action. Debate rages in Concord over where the solar fields could be erected without having undue regulatory hurdles, or too much of a public impact in the tourism-heavy town. The Solar Siting Committee is preparing to issue its report on potential solar-array locations later this month, and has posted its draft report on the town website,

Back in Sherborn, only one location has been discussed for generating solar power on a large scale - the old landfill off Route 27 near the Natick border.

“It is remote, and maybe that’s why no one raised an objection at Town Meeting,’’ Glickman said.

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