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Community solar and storage-in Massachusetts

Lodestar Energy recently completed the first of many community solar projects it expects to do in Massachusetts, the 4.5-MW Shutesbury project, which also includes a 4-MWh battery component.

By Paul MacDonald

The state of Massachusetts continues to be a leader in U.S. solar power generation, and the numbers back this up.

According to the Q3/2018 report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the state is ranked #7 in solar power in the U.S., with 2,226 MW of solar power, representing the equivalent of a staggering 368,845 homes supplied with solar power.

Solar power not new for timber management company

Lodestar Energy has leased 30 acres from timber management company WD Cowls for the Shutesbury solar project.

WD Cowls farms more acres than any other agricultural producer in Massachusetts, and the company is the largest private landowner in the state. It dates back a staggering nine generations, and continues to be family-run.

The company says it is committed to doing its part to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels, while improving the economy of Massachusetts, noting the Shutesbury project represents an opportunity to support the state's clean energy goals by bringing solar power production to their land.

The land holding company actually generates solar power itself: in the town of North Amherst, it hosts 390 solar panels on Cowls Building Supply's warehouse, generating 120 kW of power and producing more power than the store utilizes.

"It was great to partner with Cowls," says Jeff Macel, co-founder and managing director of Lodestar, noting the company has won numerous awards for its sustainable forest management practices. Lodestar worked closely with Cowls in planning and building the Shutesbury solar array.

Massachusetts went over the 2,000 MW mark early in 2018—February, in fact. It's also a solar power leader in the northeast U.S., behind only New Jersey in solar power capacity.

In 2017, the state added 461 MW of solar power, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Massachusetts ranks sixth in the nation for new installed solar capacity and has ranked second in the United States for total solar jobs for the last two years. According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, there is at least one solar project in each of the state's 351 towns and cities.

The residents of those towns and cities have been progressive in wanting the state to move ahead in a substantial way with solar power. As recently as this past fall, an overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters—84 percent—said there should be more solar in the Commonwealth, in an independent poll.

The state has responded in a SMART way.

Short for Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target, the recently enacted SMART program is a successor to the state's previous solar renewable energy credits program (SREC 2). It is intended to create a more stable policy for solar companies, while lowering costs for consumers.

 Lodestar Energy will be participating in the community solar aspect of the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program with the Shutesbury project.

Based on the state's own estimates, by 2020, SMART will bring an additional 1,600 megawatts of solar online, grow the state's solar market by 72 percent, and generate millions of dollars of investment in Massachusetts.

That investment has already started. An example is Lodestar Energy's Shutesbury solar power project, a 4.5-MW AC, 6-MW DC system that came into service in 2018. Lodestar will be participating in the community solar aspect of the SMART Program. About 50 percent of Shutesbury's energy will be allocated to the electric bills of local residents, while another 50 percent will contribute to energy savings for the City of Haverhill, about 35 miles north of Boston.

Jeff Macel, co-founder and managing director of Lodestar, explained that the company had first looked at the Shutesbury project about six years ago. At the time, they did an exchange of solar power projects with another company, Chicago-based Lake Street Development Partners.

"It was an interesting project, but we were active with a lot of other SREC 1 projects at the time," he says. The company has been very busy since its founding in 2014—it has developed and financed over $175 million in projects.

It was Lake Street that took the project through development and permitting. Lodestar then re-entered the picture, purchasing the project back, and proceeding with construction, using S&C Electric as the contractor.

Along the way, Lodestar also added energy storage to Shutesbury. The project features a 4-MWh battery component. "We wanted to optimize the project, so we added the storage component," says Macel.

"We expect this to be one of the very first SMART projects to begin operations, as we have already secured approval from National Grid to interconnect our battery system. And we believe this is going to be one of the first solar projects in Massachusetts with co-located storage."

Though it is community solar, the Shutesbury project is actually a ways away from some of the communities and customers it will serve. Lodestar has leased land from timber management company WD Cowls on one of the Cowls tree farms for the Shutesbury solar project. (See sidebar story)

The Shutesbury solar project was built over the winter of 2017/2018, and this being Massachusetts, with a site elevation of about 1,000 feet, there was plenty of snow. The weather conditions underlined the importance of all of those involved—from Lodestar to contractor S&C Electric to component suppliers—working as a team, for a successful project. 

Aside from tree clearing, the site did not require much in the way of site prep. "We did not have to do a lot of earth work," says Macel. They worked with a local company, Wagner Wood, to do the timber harvesting.

In terms of their environmental approach, there were ongoing inspections during the construction period. Illustrating the rigor of this process, there were more than 45 inspections during the six-month construction period. This followed examinations of the property by archeologists. "It was a lot of work, but we did not have any issues," says Macel. New England Environmental Inc. handled the environmental and engineering consulting for the project.

The project was built over the winter of 2017/2018, and this being Massachusetts, with a site elevation of about 1,000 feet, there was plenty of snow.

The weather conditions underlined the importance of all of those involved—from Lodestar to S&C to component suppliers—working as a team, for a successful project.

The system uses CSUN solar modules and TMEIC central inverters. TerraSmart was the racking provider for the project.

"The weather conditions were challenging with temperatures below zero, on a mountaintop and with snowstorms. The TerraSmart team was the first crew on the site, which set the stage for the remaining construction schedule," said Macel.

"TerraSmart's installation crew quickly adapted by phasing their ground screw installations to accommodate civil work, and delivered all steel on time," added Macel. "They had to be flawless and they were. Their ability to complete this rapid install in significant weather conditions on rolling hills with unforeseen site challenges was quite impressive."

With the next phase of the project, S & C Electric utilized TerraSmart's Landscape racking system that allowed for a seamless install on the site's undulating terrain consisting of primarily rock and ledge. For any EPC or installer, these types of site conditions would be extremely challenging without adding numerous hours of pre-civil work. However, in knowing TerraSmart's substantial portfolio of successful installs on some of the most difficult sites in the country, it was evident why their ground screw solution, paired with their advanced engineered racking product, was a clear choice. TerraSmart's Landscape racking was designed with fewer hardware and parts, making the infrastructure lighter and easy to install. Additionally, their Landscape racking design maximizes the site's usage of modules, and ultimately maximizes energy production.

 Lodestar Energy has leased 30 acres from timber management company WD Cowls on one of the Cowls tree farms for the Shutesbury solar project.

Lodestar was able to secure the panels for Shutesbury and two other projects before the U.S. tariffs on imported solar panels kicked in. The storage component of the project will consist of a 2MW/4MWH DC coupled system with DC-DC converters and a series of batteries.

With the SMART program now fully launched, Lodestar sees itself doing a lot of community solar in Massachusetts.

"The general idea is that folks who can't have solar on their own buildings or homes have the opportunity to have a share, just like community solar in other U.S. states," explained Jaime Smith, also a Lodestar co-founder and managing partner. "The unique wrinkle in the SMART program is that we are allowed to have 50 percent of our offtake from one customer—in this case, that customer is the city of Havrill.

"The balance will be made up of lots of little customers and businesses that will do less than 25 kW. So we will have 150 to 200 smaller customers that will have the benefit of community solar."

Another new feature is that there are no conditions about customers having to be in the same load zone, said Smith. "With the earlier programs, it was by utility and load zone. But SMART has no load zone distinction. So with Shutesbury, if you live in one part of the National Grid territory, and the project is 150 miles away, it does not make any difference—you can still participate."

In terms of customers, Smith said that there are specialized companies in the market, such as Ampion, that perform customer and asset management services for renewable energy providers and market community solar subscriptions.

In addition to choosing an environmentally friendly power source, subscribers save money through the program, as each credit is sold at a 10 percent discount of its offset value.

Smith says one of the challenges to the project was its remote location. "With that high elevation site, we had to get tractor trailers with supplies and work crews up there. The site is out in the middle of the woods—it's not beside an interstate or even a county road." There are roads on the Cowls timberland, but they are generally dirt roads. Lodestar also had to build some of their own road, about 1500 feet, into the solar project site.

"Our construction managers and the site managers did a fantastic job in ensuring the project stayed on track and on budget," said Smith.

Probably the largest challenge was dealing with the local planning, zoning, and conservation bodies, said Smith. "Jeff did a lot of work on that side of things with the Shutesbury project, outlining our high level building practices and how we were going to use the land."

Smith said one of the things that the company brings to solar power projects is their ability to solve problems. "At Lodestar, we have a very small, nimble team, and we all wear a bunch of different hats. And I think you need to do that to be a good developer."

Possessing such resourcefulness can mean the difference in being able to move ahead with a solar project quickly, he says.