The timing of the event did seem odd, but it makes sense when the whole story is told. On May 30, a few weeks ago, First Selectman Melissa Mack cut a ribbon strung across one aisle of the big array of solar cells erected in Kevin Sullivan’s back field on North Street in late 2016. The ribbon cutting was a happy event marked with brief celebratory speeches by key participants, who explained that the 2-megawatt array would produce enough energy to power 500 houses. And it’s clean energy, from an inexhaustible source.
The builder and operator of the solar farm is Lodestar Energy, a young company in Avon founded to create solar energy projects like Suffield’s that are environmentally, socially, and financially successful. Clearly, they are doing just that. And the Town of Suffield will benefit, according to a Town press release, with projected savings of $1.5 million over the next 20 years. Suffield land owner Sullivan will benefit, as well, from rent paid by Lodestar for recently idle agricultural land. By state law, the solar farm is exempt from property tax, but Lodestar plans to pay a modest PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes).
The concept of the solar farm and its financial arrangement was presented to the Board of Selectmen on April 20, 2016, by Lodestar co-founders Jeff Macel and Jaime Smith and discussed in detail. Former First Selectman Ed McAnaney had signed a letter of intent with Lodestar a year earlier. At the April meeting, the selectmen voted unanimously to proceed with the project. The proposed virtual net metering credit system involved was approved unanimously at a Town Meeting on November 28, 2016.
Lodestar’s Macel had predicted in April that the solar farm could go on line by the end of the year. At the recent ribbon cutting, he said that it had done so on December 29, 2016, only eight months after the April selectmen’s meeting. The facility was described by The Suffield Observer in an illustrated article in our December 2016/January 2017 issue.
The Town’s main financial benefit comes from virtual net metering. There will be no real meters turning backward when the sun shines and forward on cloudy days and at night; hence the word, “virtual.”
Here’s how that will work: All the power generators hereabouts feed their energy into a giant system called the New England Power Pool. Eversource bills its customers for the power at a rate set by the customer’s selected source. Suffield uses virtual net metering credits to pay part of the Town’s bill.
If our payment system had been set up soon enough, we would have been able to buy discounted virtual net metering credits from Lodestar based on the output of the Suffield farm, but those credits were sold to someone else. So we will buy our credits based on the output of a solar farm owned by the Town of South Windsor, which went on line at the end of May this year. (Hence the timing of the ribbon cutting!)
First Selectman Mack commented at the ribbon cutting that the Town had negotiated a very favorable discount for buying the credits. According to Suffield Finance Director Debbie Ceratto, the payment system was still being set up in early June.
There are, of course, no real electric power meters running backward in Suffield municipal buildings, but the Town was required to identify enough usage to qualify for the available credits. Accordingly, the 10 largest municipal accounts were listed (starting with the WPCA sewer plant, the Town’s biggest user).
At the ribbon cutting, First Selectman Mack gave special credit to Selectman Mel Chafetz, who had worked effectively to facilitate the project. Donald Rawling, a member of the Suffield Planning and Zoning Commission who was present at the ribbon cutting, emailed the Observer that afternoon with the following comment: “I am so excited to celebrate the unveiling of the Lodestar solar farm at today’s ribbon cutting. This project will help to broaden our tax base, reduce the town’s utility bill and generate clean, renewable energy.” That sums it up pretty well.