WENDELL — The town is one of three Western Massachusetts communities set to benefit from a 15-month grant awarded to a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Clean Energy Extension that will lead development of solar siting and financing procedures.
The project will demonstrate “bottom-up” solar-siting processes driven by residents and town officials, and offer models for evaluating financing mechanisms that can keep solar benefits within the community, according to project leader Dwayne Breger, director of the Clean Energy Extension in the college’s Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. Westhampton, in Hampshire County, and Blandford, in Hampden County, are the other towns slated to get solar planning through the federal grant, a UMass press release states.
It will also develop clear protocols and templates to support other rural New England and New York communities that want to repeat the solar siting and finance processes in their own areas. According to the release, this grant of just over $113,000 — and supplemented by $34,740 in external partner contributions — is one of eight awarded nationally this year in the “Solar in Rural Communities” category of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory Solar Energy Innovation Network.
Wendell Selectboard Co-Chair Laurie DiDonato, who is also on the Wendell Energy Committee, said members of both boards were thrilled to hear the news.
“We’re hoping it will set … a framework or a game plan for towns like Wendell,” she said, adding that the grant will allow towns to “plan ahead and be proactive in how solar will come to their communities.”
River Strong, UMass Clean Energy Extension’s associate director, said he and his colleagues are looking forward to “working with Wendell and the other towns and our partners to develop this project and see the results.”
The timing for the project, Breger said, is ideal.
“While Massachusetts is widely recognized as a leader and innovator of rural solar policy and project implementation,” Breger said in a statement, “competing objectives among the various stakeholders can occur — and rural communities may get left behind in the process. This effort will help to put the state’s communities and citizens in a strong position to determine where new projects are best located according to their specific needs and goals.”
Breger said the state has created a series of solar incentive programs leading to the development of more than 2,500 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity. But, he said, the state still faces obstacles in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction commitments while maintaining reasonable electricity rates and ensuring proper solar siting.
According to the release, widespread solar development on natural and agricultural lands in rural areas has led to moratoriums, bylaw changes, litigation and an uncertain permitting environment. This, Breger said, has had negative impacts on solar development and municipalities. The competing goals of solar developers, planners and residents lead, in some cases, to friction and increased costs.
Breger said the project should also bring reduced solar “soft costs,” such as architectural, engineering, financing, legal fees and other pre- and post-construction expenses for the region’s rural communities.
This project, Breger said, offers “a set of planning tools that can be implemented across the Northeast to ensure that solar projects are well-sited, in line with the preferences of local communities and providing economic returns to those communities.”
Reach Domenic Poli at:
413-772-0261, ext. 262.