The town's small, hilly and closed landfill will give Boxford a big boost when it comes to producing electricity and cutting greenhouse gases in the decades to come. That's thanks to a new, 1-megawatt solar field that was built on the capped landfill over the winter and is expected to start producing power soon. The project, worth several million dollars, according to the developer, consists of approximately 2,700 panels. But it did not spring up overnight; it's been a little over seven years since the town's Sustainability Committee first considered the project. "There are still a few punch-list items to be completed, but this project should be producing electricity by Monday," said Town Administrator Alan Benson to applause Wednesday from those gathered on what was an ideal day to produce solar power. Officials cut the ribbon on the top of the capped landfill off Spofford Road within sight of Johnson Field and the Town Hall. The ceremony included project officials, selectmen, Sustainability Committee members and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, whose district includes Boxford. Tarr, Benson said, worked with lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker on a compromise to lift the cap on solar net metering credits, which made the Boxford project financially viable.
"This is a team," Tarr said, "and what I did was move a pen, and what Boxford did was move earth." The Boxford solar field project is one of the latest on the North Shore as communities like Beverly and Salem, and private businesses and institutions, seek to become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Solar arrays have begun to appear on numerous schools and municipal buildings around the region. "The benefits for Boxford are great," Benson said. "The town's energy costs will decrease by 40 percent, saving the taxpayers at least sixty if not $70,000 a year...for the next 20 years. "This project will produce sufficient electricity...credits to offset the electricity needs of all of our town buildings, both elementary schools and even some extra will be produced that we are giving to Masconomet (Regional School District)," he said. Boxford entered into a 20-year power purchase agreement with Agilitas Energy, which developed and built the solar project, said Ken Rubin, managing partner with Agilitas Capital. The financing, construction, ownership and operations of the array is a partnership between Agilitas Energy and SunRaise Investments, Rubin said.
The town uses all the power, then buys solar net metering credits from Agilitas, based on production, and redeems them for kilowatts from the utility. Benson said it's as if the town were buying a $100 gift certificate for $60. "The town saves money based on the spread between the lower cost of the net metering credits versus the market price of the power from National Grid," Rubin explained. The town will also collect tax revenue and rent for use of the landfill. Solar developers take advantage of federal tax credits for construction and any state renewable energy credits that may exist when a solar project is built. "The town saves money and improves the environment," Benson said. "A true win-win situation." The solar project has significance beyond Boxford. Tarr said that in 2008, the state passed the Global Warming Solutions Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of 25 percent by 2020. The state has so far reduced emissions by 21 percent. By 2050, that target number hits 80 percent. The Boxford solar array will offset up to 730 tons of carbon dioxide each year, Benson said. Tarr mentioned how solar panels are a common sight on roofs across the region, but added it's important to do these larger community-based projects that will "take a big bite out of those greenhouse gas emissions." The solar project was first proposed seven years ago when the former executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, Dennis DiZoglio, was studying landfills to see if they could support wind or solar projects, Benson said. Boxford's landfill was a candidate, and the town won a state grant from the Department of Energy Resources to study it. The town attracted Borrego Solar Systems Inc. of Lowell, but negotiations for a 20-year deal took a while. Meanwhile, National Grid had satisfied its requirement by the state to buy solar power from facilities like Boxford's. "Our project was dead in the water," he said. Benson said the solar industry in Massachusetts was pushing for an increase in the cap while utilities argued that the more solar they had to buy at reduced rates, the higher the rates were going to go for those without solar. The state was also facing a decline in energy production, and a federal tax investment credit that made this all financially worthwhile was about to expire. Benson credited Tarr for working out the compromise, and Baker signed the bill in 2016. "If we do not do things like this, we will default to worse alternatives," Tarr said. "And I cannot emphasize that enough." In Boxford, it was a race to the finish, Benson said. To be financially viable, the project had to be built and substantially complete in eight months. Borrego had so many projects, it arranged for Agilitas Energy to build the Boxford solar array, and construction began last fall. At times, there were up to 20 union electricians working to wire each panel in the cold in December. And they did meet the state's January deadline to qualify. Boxford is not the only community to go solar on the North Shore. Among them is Beverly, which has been designated a Green Community by the state. The solar array adjacent to Beverly High, built in 1981, and panels on the school's rooftop provide 15 percent of the building's power, and the city is considering a solar array at the Otis Road landfill off Brimbal Avenue. Salem is also moving toward a reliance on clean energy. Bentley Academy and Witchcraft Heights schools were getting solar panels this year to offset their electrical energy costs, a project paid for through a combination of a state grant and Footprint Power. Swampscott, which is also a Green Community, has solar panels on Swampscott High and Swampscott Middle School.Private projects include a solar farm off Route 97 in Beverly, solar parking lot canopies at the Danversport Yacht Club and Endicott College. The sprawling roofs at Danvers Indoor Sports also sport a solar installation.
By Ethan Forman