PITTSFIELD – The Airport Commission, alongside members of the Solar Selection Committee, heard from four firms hoping to install a solar system at the airport within the next two years.
Bids came from Oak Leaf Energy Partners, Sol Systems, NuGen Capital and Ameresco.
With presentations complete, the commission will evaluate each offer and rank companies in order of preference. Members of the Solar Selection Committee will then provide a recommendation to the commission.
According to Beth Greenblatt, managing director of the Boston energy management firm Beacon Integrated Solutions and consultant to the commission during the solar selection process, contracting will start once the commission selects a firm.
During the commission meeting in the airport’s terminal April 21, Vice-Chairman David Keator said he expects the commission will announce a top bidder within the next four to five weeks.
“Construction is likely not to start until a year from this summer. Sometime in the end of Q2 of 2018,” Greenblatt said.
Commission Chairman Chris Pedersen said there are plans to resurface both airport runways next summer. He said the airport will be closed for around 80 days, which might provide an opportunity for a firm to make solar construction easier.
But Brian Spencer, the airport inspector and assistant manager, said twice the amount of construction would be “kind of chaos.”
Ameresco Project Development Manager Jack Honor said the time frame, beginning April 2018 and completed mid- to late-summer, would be compatible for solar construction.
The commission voiced concerns to each proposal, which for Oak Leaf Energy Partners, included the possibility of finding rock when using screw anchors to install the system.
“Whenever we hit ledge we use a pre-drilling bore system. we drill each point, screw the anchors in – anchors are usually around seven feet – go right into it ,” said Sam McGrath, construction manager for the Ryan Company, a company contracted to execute the project on behalf of Oak Leaf Energy Partners. “I just got done doing several thousand of them in Pittsfield.”
Airport Manager Gloria Bouillon also noted the firm’s design plans that would have to change due to space regulations.
“And that’s great feedback, and we do envision there would be some redesign efforts for a number of issues including that one,” Oak Leaf Energy Partners President Michael McCabe said. “That is the nature of a solar project, things do come up and we have to make adjustments.”
Nate Malo, business development manager for M+W Group, a construction firm contracted with Sol Systems and NuGen – each separate bidders – later expressed similar comments.
“As development progresses, if you’ve been through solar development before, you know the end product is always going to look different,” Malo said. “You can pretty much guarantee there will be design modifications as we learn about area constraints and constraints with the FAA.”
McCabe, of Oak Leaf Energy Partners, said the company has completed the most large-scale solar projects for airports around the country.
“Our primary role in the development of the project will be completing all the development activities, including FAA permitting, working closely with the utility interconnection and the various affiliates having jurisdiction to approve the project, including the city,” McCabe said.
Officials from the other three firms agreed to provide the same areas of support.
Director of Project Development for Ameresco Joel Lindsay said during construction he would expect to conduct daily briefings with Pittsfield Airport officials, likely Bouillon and Spencer.
The company proposed the installation of a 6 megawatt DC, or direct current, system with a 5 MW AC, or alternating current, system. In solar power networks, the inverter is responsible for converting DC electrical currents into one that’s compatible with household appliances, known as AC electrical currents.
McCabe said the company has acquired a financial partner to assist in project costs. But McCabe’s company, along with the other bidders, will have to wait until work at the state level is finalized – work that would directly affect project costs.
The state Department of Energy Resources is in the process of creating a long-term solar incentive program, called the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program. According to Greenblatt, the airport plans to finance the project with monetary aid from the DOER solar initiative program. But, the state has delayed project development with new regulations expected to be released this month.
The SMART program has determined a ceiling cost for utility interconnection costs, $0.15/kWh price for projects sized between 1 and 2 MW, and $0.14/kWh price for projects sized larger than 2 MW, but a base cost has not been determined.
Greenblatt said the DOER is responsible for policy piece of the SMART program, but implementation of the program is up to the Department of Public Utilities.
“It’s really for the DPU to go through the adjudicatory process...to get a good structure in place, and that’s actually on top of the rate increase that Eversource is currently going through,” she said.
Sol Systems, headquartered in Washington, D.C., offered a lease-only financing option.
As a wholly owned subsidiary, the airport maintains a symbiotic relationship with the city. However, the lease payment option wouldn’t provide much benefit to the municipality.
“A lease payment is good for us, but it doesn’t help the city at all,” Keator, the commission's vice-chair, said.
Sol Systems Project Development Manager Taylor Leyden said since the airport would not be interconnecting behind the meter and would qualify as a stand-alone system, a lease payment option would be more beneficial for the airport.
But Greenblatt noted that the company’s allocation for interconnection costs was “woefully low” at $75,000.
“We know that there may be some risk that the airport commission will have to accept until that has been solidified subject to the competitive procurement,” Greenblatt said. For NuGen’s first of three proposed designs – similar to Sol Systems’ only design – the firm allocated $750,000 for utility interconnection. And 2015, the city contracted with Ameresco to build a 2.91 MW solar facility on its landfill, completed last month, with interconnection costs nearing $500,000.
“When we do these offers, we want a tremendous number of sensitivities assuming these various deltas, and really stress testing saying how much can we absorb here and how much can we not,” NuGen Capital President Dan Poydenis said.
Ameresco also included $750,000 for utility interconnection costs.
“We don’t want to needlessly include an overly high cost,” Ameresco official Lindsay said. “We feel like this is an appropriate place to be.”
Leyden, of Sol Systems, said if the interconnection costs spill above $150,000, for every $50,000 increase, there would be about a $600 decrease per acre per year in the lease payment. Sol Systems’ design covers a 15-acre parcel.
“This is a variable that nobody has an answer to,” Greenblatt said.
Regardless of which company the commission chooses to contract the solar project, the interconnection costs will be the same.
This article first appeared in The Berkshire Courier.