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Solar on scenic Cape Cod

Solar power continues to grow quickly in Massachusetts, and one of the most recent additions—American Capital Energy’s nine solar projects totaling 22 MW on scenic Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard—includes a total of 19.5 MW on capped landfi

By Paul MacDonald

The state of Massachusetts has quietly-and quickly-become a major solar power player in the United States over the last several years, thanks to some progressive policies on the part of the state government that have spurred investment in solar power projects.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had set a goal of 250 megawatts of installed solar power, which was reached in 2013-four years early. Deval then set a new goal: 1,600 MW by 2020.

The growth in solar power in Massachusetts has been enormous; the amount of solar power installed has increased more than 80-fold, from the three MW installed in 2007.

Illustrating the success of solar power in the state, Massachusetts hit a major clean energy milestone this past summer, surpassing 15,000 solar installations, a twenty-fold increase from the number of installations in 2008. At the same time, the state's three coal-powered power plants have been shut down. All of this is good news in an era of concern about climate change.

While a good deal of the solar capacity is on homes, the number of large solar projects has grown in recent years.

The policy approach has been fairly straightforward: Massachusetts has established strong incentives for renewable energy production that have led to significant cost reductions in solar electricity, making clean energy more accessible to Massachusetts businesses and residents.

One of the larger solar power projects in the state started operations recently, in the scenic Cape Cod area.

Earlier this year, American Capital Energy completed construction of nine solar projects totaling 22 MW on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. The project includes a total of 19.5 MW on capped landfills, the largest group of landfill solar projects ever built and financed in the U.S., says American Capital.

The nine projects consisted of eight projects for the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC), and one project for the town of Dennis. CVEC is comprised of 17 member towns on the cape and Martha's Vineyard plus Barnstable County, Dukes County, and the Cape Light Compact. Dennis is a town of about 14,000 residents in Barnstable County.

The CVEC portion of the project consists of eight sites in seven towns, with total generating capacity of 16.2 MW. Six of the eight sites are closed landfills. The town of Dennis portion is a 5.9-MW solar power facility on the town's closed landfill. Clean Focus Corporation financed, owns, and operates the portfolio of projects.

For the project, American Capital Energy recently won the 2014 "Overcoming Obstacles Award" from accounting and consulting firm Novogradac & Company LLP.

Reflecting on the award, Tom Hunton, president of American Capital Energy, explained the project had its share of challenges, and that it was a while in the works.

In the fall of 2011, both the CVEC and Dennis put out Requests for Proposals, which were won by American Capital.

"Once we had the PPAs, we moved ahead with the other parts of the projects, all the development and connections," said Hunton.

"It was a perfect fit for us," he added. "We have developed a strong expertise in this exact environment: brownfields and landfills. Most of the work was on landfills on Cape Cod and involved working with municipalities, and we find that we're very good at that. We learn what the client needs, respond to that, and make the project successful."

Totaling 19.5 MW, the nine solar projects that American Capital built consisted of eight projects for the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative and one project for the town of Dennis. Seven of the projects were on closed landfills. 

As noted by the Overcoming Obstacles Award, that is not always as simple as it sounds. "It's not always easy-but we push through and get the projects through to completion," says Hunton.

At the time the projects were awarded to American Capital, there was a fair bit of uncertainty about the value of Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), as there were only a certain number of projects, and megawatts, allowed under Massachusetts' SREC 1 program.

"That was right at the tail end of getting our financing done," notes Hunton. "One of the major challenges was the uncertainty over the pricing of SRECs and about whether we could get into the SREC 1 program. But we managed through both of those."

Working with Clean Focus Corporation, American Capital Energy dealt with a number of first-time solar investors for the Cape Cod projects, which involved a bit of Solar Power 101 education on the company's part.

"You have to do that," says Hunton. "But that's one of our core strengths as a company. American Capital Energy has been around for about 10 years, so we've been doing this a long time. But American Capital Energy co-founder Art Hennessey and I have been in solar since the 1990s." They know the industry-inside and out.

"When it comes to holding the hands of the financiers, or anyone who does not really understand the industry that well, we're good at doing that. We understand all aspects of the industry, the technology, the development, construction, maintenance-we do the full value chain of solar power. It puts us in a good position to bring people up to speed on the industry."

The financial aspects of solar power in Massachusetts-SRECs and virtual net metering-are really what is driving a very successful industry in the state, says Hunton.

For example, with the town of Dennis, they can put solar panels on the closed landfill, but they can't run a wire from the landfill to the city hall or the school. So the state program allows them to virtually net meter-the utility reads the meter and how much the project generates and reduces the town's power bill accordingly.

"It's very forward looking, and it's a good and fair policy," said Hunton. "It really has been helpful. Massachusetts has been one of the few states that have done virtual net metering, and they are the first that has done it in a big and meaningful way."

Among the results is that Massachusetts has been very successful with solar projects on landfills and brownfields.

The growth in solar power in Massachusetts in recent years has been enormous; the amount of solar power installed has increased more than 80-fold, from the three MW installed in 2007 

"It's a great idea," says Hunton. "You really can't use that land for anything else."

The potential for solar power on landfills and brownfields nation-wide in the U.S. is truly staggering.

According to the EPA, there are more than 450,000 brownfield sites in the country. If solar projects could be installed on a fraction of those sites-about 15 percent, or 66,000-they could meet many times the electrical power needs of the entire United States.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity," says Hunton, who notes that Massachusetts-based American Capital Energy does solar projects on brownfields and landfills across the U.S. "That's where we are focused, and we love working in that market because it's a win, win, win for all the parties involved."

In addition to dealing with the financial hurdles, American Capital was working with some challenges with the CVEC project, in that it involved eight different sites. The town of Dennis project was a single site.

"It ended up being nine separate projects under one financing umbrella," says Hunton.

Some companies might find the logistics of building solar projects on nine different sites at the same time a bit daunting. Not so for American Capital, which has done this sort of thing before.

"Taking on these kinds of projects is core to who we are," explained Hunton. "We have a very well proven and tightly run project management process. We have the project managers who manage the contracts, the schedules-and construction managers are on site every day managing the progress at the projects.

"We built all nine projects simultaneously, and they were all built in a good time frame."

Successful projects, of course, depend on good partners and suppliers. American Capital worked with regional electrical subcontractors E. S. Bulos, based in Maine, and Massachusetts-based Florence Electric.

"We split the work up and awarded half to each of the companies," explained Hunton. "By doing that, we can extend our capabilities. At one point, we had 800 electricians out there working on the various sites."

American Capital's expertise is on the project and construction management side and engineering, says Hunton.

"The key to a successful solar project lies in the planning, so if you engineer it and design it properly, and plan it well in advance, then the actual construction/execution goes very smoothly. This business model works for us across the country."

Working on so many projects at once could be unwieldy, but as noted, this is familiar territory for American Capital.

"We have strong relationships with the companies that we work with. We select companies that we have worked with before, and we know how to work together. And we have strong relationships with our customers and our lenders.


"Every project will have its challenges. But we work together and communicate effectively and frequently, so every time a challenge comes up, we can get around a table and work through it."

A lot of what customers receive with American Capital Energy involves the company's experience and depth. "We're not learning as we go," says Hunton. "There really isn't a situation in the field or in the planning or execution that we have not encountered before. Some of our guys have been working in solar since the mid-1990s and have designed and built systems all over the world."

Helping to drive the projects at American Capital are a number of combat veterans, who bring perhaps a unique desire to get jobs done. "We have three combat veterans in our senior management, along with others in the company, and they really drive this mission completion culture in our company," says Hunton.

That was all necessary with the Cape Cod solar projects, which faced tight timelines. Probably the biggest challenge was dealing with adverse weather. The entire region had probably the worst weather in close to 50 years, as the projects were built through this past winter. The town of Hyannis received five times its normal amount of snow.

Civil work was limited on the projects, since they were all capped landfills, explained Hunton. The soil on the landfills and the planted grass are all part of a carefully engineered capping system that handles moisture, including draining it off the site. American Capital has its own in-house environmental engineering expertise, but they also used the services of Weston and Sampson, a Massachusetts-based environmental and engineering consulting firm. "They are a great company when it comes to environmental engineering and understanding the issues," says Hunton.

They used a concrete ballasted system on all nine of the sites. American Capital always uses Tier One solar panel suppliers, and the panel supplier on the Cape Cod projects was ET Solar. They used inverters from Advanced Energy.

For a snapshot of the overall approach, on one of the sites, a landfill in the town of Chatham, there were 1,660 precast concrete ballasts, each 70 inches by 40 inches by 14 inches thick, placed on the topsoil layer of the landfill cover. Some 800 SunLink support racks were installed on the concrete ballasts, and 7,200 ET solar panels were placed on the racks. Three concrete pads were installed to support electrical equipment including inverters, transformers, switchboards, and switchgear.

The close communication that American Capital has with its clients was essential with the Cape Cod projects, and they had some terrific help from former Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative board member Maggie Downey, said Hunton. "Maggie Downey was phenomenal in helping us keep all the towns apprised of what was going on," he said. "The challenges with SRECs caused long delays at the start of the process. It was very important to keep communications flowing because there was a long time between when the RFP was awarded and the start of construction. It would have been easy for people to get frustrated when it was taking so long for the utility to approve interconnecting with the solar projects.

"CVEC played a great role and helped us keep expectations in line with the towns. And we kept communications open with the town of Dennis."

While there are technical issues that can crop up with solar projects, sometimes soft issues, such as managing expectations, can be just as important. Residents will sometimes wonder why a project is not moving ahead faster.

"We do our part very quickly and efficiently," says Hunton. "But sometimes we have to wait for others, such as utilities, to do their part. With the Cape Cod project, there were a lot of things that had to come together that we did not have any control over.

"But at the end of the day, the projects were built, and everyone was pleased."