Montague solar forum being planned for spring

By VIRGINIA RAY

For the Recorder

Published: 01-25-2024 11:21 AM

Modified: 01-25-2024 11:40 AM


MONTAGUE — Residents will have a chance to weigh in on a Community Solar Action Plan and solar energy possibilities for the future during a town-wide forum being planned for the spring.

Energy Committee Co-Chairs Sally Pick and Tim Van Egmond met with the Selectboard this week to review the solar plan and ask for support to make it part of the town’s comprehensive plan, which is being developed.

“This is an opportunity for the town to envision what it wants to do in terms of solar,” Pick explained. “I think there are ideas that could be used as a starting point.”

The Community Solar Action Plan was drafted by University of Massachusetts Amherst students supervised by the Clean Energy Extension alongside the Montague Solar Planning Committee from fall 2022 to spring 2023.

Pick noted that while the town’s recent attempt to expand solar on the airport property did not come to fruition due to restrictions around needing to upgrade the grid, there are many reasons to include solar in future planning.

Among them are 30% federal, commercial and residential tax credits for solar installations. Municipalities and nonprofits are eligible for direct payments in lieu of those credits. Also noted in the plan is that the state may share the costs of needed grid upgrades and that the state is likely to offer more incentives as time goes on. In addition, financing is a possibility through the state’s new green bank.

While another reason is that abundant forests and farmland — which Montague is blessed with — is attractive to large-scale solar developers, that reason didn’t appear to be of particular interest to residents who completed a survey sent to 600 homes. The survey received 249 responses with the overall preference that “little or none” of any future solar installations be located in those areas.

The intent, Pick said, is to develop solar installations on town-owned properties as well as residential and commercial properties, and to explore residents’ preferences. She said survey responses did show support for solar on town-owned property, commercial rooftops and in parking lots.

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The Energy Committee is now looking at dates in the spring, after the May 4 Annual Town Meeting, for a community forum that likely will be led by a UMass Clean Energy Extension faculty member so that residents can ask questions, discuss ideas, learn about incentives and economic benefits, and explore potential next steps.

Saying members of the Energy Committee feel “it’s critical” for town leaders to participate in the planning process, Pick asked Selectboard members for their thoughts.

Selectboard Clerk Matt Lord supports solar exploration in town, saying, “I think solar planning is great.”

He added that the Selectboard may not be the best board to promote it, however. He encouraged the Energy Committee to also work with the Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board and Capital Improvements Committee.

“Solar is obviously here for the future,” said Selectboard Vice Chair Chris Boutwell. “I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Chair Rich Kuklewicz expressed he has “mixed feelings” about solar.

“I think it’s good, but I think there are some negatives that people neglect to speak about,” Kuklewicz said, encouraging open discussion and adding he believes planning is worthwhile. He agreed other departments should be involved in the discussion.

Assistant Town Administrator Walter Ramsey noted the town already has solar on the former burn dump, has designated $215,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to develop solar at Town Hall, and that the highway garage was built with solar in mind “when it makes sense to do that financially.”

“In one sense, we have a good pipeline of potential projects on rooflines, and I think that’s a good place to start,” Ramsey said, agreeing, too, that zoning bylaws need to be reviewed. “It’s great you’re trying to align this with the comprehensive planning process.”

“I think there are a lot of communities where solar can’t even get started,” added Town Administrator Steve Ellis.

He said it is worth better defining the community’s values. Plus, “anything a consultant could do to help clarify capacity and foresee likely inter-connect issues would be really valuable,” as those topics are the basis of discussion with any utility company.

Ellis also noted the “significant” upfront monetary investment that has historically been needed for municipal projects and said if there’s information to clarify potential costs for various sites “that would be great.”