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Wellington Will Host First Municipal Solar Panel Set Up in Belmont

Proposal by Belmont Energy Committee took two years and the OK from the Planning Board.

When the Belmont Planning Board voted Monday, Jan. 6, to approve the site plan review allowing more than 500 solar electrical panels to be placed on the roof of the Wellington Elementary School on Oakley and School streets, a burst of applause erupted from many assembled at Town Hall.

(The Wellington was selected as it was the only municipal building that could effectively house the panels and the roof in the condition to accept the array.)

And who could blame them, for many in the Board of Selectmen's Room were part of the core group of residents who had advocated for this form of alternative energy two years ago before the Belmont School Committee only to see their proposal nearly end in frustration this fall.

What had been at times a highly-contentious review, the contractor set to install the solar panels, Broadway Electric Company located in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, and the board came to loggerheads on mitigation and information the board said needed to be fully vetted before it would approve the proposal.

"We have made it clear to the proponents from the start that we required specific information at a timely manner on what we consider are major issues before the community," said Michael Battista, chair of the Planning Board, told Belmont Patch back in early December.

At a previous public meeting in November, Battista noted requested information from Broadway on issues such as glare and sounds emulating from the roof "are delivered at the last moment before our meetings."

Battista said the board's pre-cautious review of the proposal was two-fold; Broadway Electric's installation would set precedence as it was the first solar array to seek regulatory approval and the ongoing environmental issues created by the new school – two-and-a-half years after the school opened to students in September, 2011 – a handful of neighbors contend is spoiling their quality of life.

"We don't want to add to the problems besetting the homeowners so we need to have solid data and information on how the solar panels will impact the neighbors," said Battista, noting that the Planning Board has yet to sign off on the Wellington's building permit application until noise and possible vibration concerns are met.

For Broadway which has placed solar panels and the associated electrical systems on several municipal and school buildings across the state, the amount of information and data – from glare studies and noise abatement plans – was both time consuming and expensive.

"This is a small project for us and the level of data that you are seeking is cost prohibitive," said Broadway's project manager Dennis DaRu, noting that the "job" was worth only $250,000 for the company. 

"They usually spend a couple of hours with other Planning Boards, not a couple of months," said Roger Colton, the co-chair of the Belmont Energy Committee which championed solar panels on public buildings.

(Sami Baghdady, the board's vice chair, said that many of the school's Broadway had worked on – Medway High School and Norwell Middle School – where in isolated locations, unlike the Wellington which is crowded by residential properties on three sides.)

But it was time that nearly sank the proposal; under regulations at the time, owners of the panels would have needed to install solar arrays before the last day of the year to qualify for valuable tax credits such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit.

Under the proposal, the town and Broadway would enter into a 20-year contract in which the Belmont buys the electricity at a discounted rate and Broadway Electrical would keep the proceeds from the sale of the electricity and the valuable tax credit. The town would save about $1,000 annually with the proposal. 

There is no cost to the town or school committee for installing or maintaining the solar panels. 

So with each delay and demand of additional information, Broadway saw its payoff slowly slipping away.

But in what turned out to be a reprieve for all sides, the tax credits were extended into the New Year, giving both sides the extra needed time to resolve the pending issues.

And on Monday, the Planning Board appeared satisfied with Broadway's mitigation plan on noise – it will place six electrical inverters in the basement instead of the roof – and data that sunlight will not have a substantial impact on the vast majority of the neighborhood. 

"You've gone the extra mile in providing information," said Board Member Charles Clark.

With the board's OK , Broadway will start placing the photovoltaic panels soon "as the clock is ticking" on tax credits, said DaRu.

It will take eight to ten weeks to complete the work. 

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