Solar Energy Produces A Bright Future For Newtown
For more than 15 years, the Town of Newtown has been actively working to generate and receive more of its electricity through solar-powered technology.
Newtown’s Sustainable Energy Commission (SEC) — whose mission is to identify, implement, and support renewable energy use, energy efficiency, energy conservation programs, and strategies for sustainable material use — has worked with agencies in Newtown, including Public Works, to help implement more solar energy options at town-owned buildings.
Through its many initiatives, the town has become a trailblazer for the solar energy movement on a municipal level, with plans to grow its reach.
How Does Solar Energy Work?
Solar energy is generated through solar panels that can be utilized both directly and indirectly for power.
Kathy Quinn, chair of SEC, says that solar panels work “by absorbing sunlight with photovoltaic cells, generating direct current (DC) energy, and then converting it to usable alternating current (AC) with the help of inverter technology.”
Direct forms of solar energy use occur when a building has solar panels installed on its rooftop and the electricity is delivered directly inside the building. This method is commonly referred to as behind-the-meter (BTM), which means the system delivers the electricity on-site without passing through a meter.
The other type of solar use is called indirect, or front-of-the-meter (FTM), because a system provides power to off-site locations and passes through an electric meter while delivering it.
Newtown Public Works Director Fred Hurley explained that Newtown uses a combination of both direct and indirect solar energy. For indirect solar energy, Newtown utilizes virtual net metering from solar farms in different parts of the state.
“The town, if you will, is an investor in those farms. We don’t give them cash directly, but we basically pay the developer for each kilowatt (KW) that they generate from the solar power in order to put that into the grid, like a commodity. We’re essentially the buyer,” Hurley said.
He compares it to if a homeowner had their electric bill come from a third-party supplier instead of directly from Eversource.
“On a number of buildings, we have a combination of both solar panels on the building and the balance of the consumption in that building covered by indirect solar or virtual net metering,” Hurley said.
On average, direct solar energy can make up 30% of the building’s energy consumption with virtual net metering working to make up the difference of its total consumption.
“From a generation standpoint, we have 6.6 megawatts (MW) of generation capacity online: 5 MW is in the form of the virtual net metering, and 1.6 is in the form of panels on the actual buildings,” Hurley said.
As a result, approximately 84% of Newtown’s municipal electricity currently comes from solar.
“No pun intended, but we are light-years ahead of [other towns]. A lot of towns are now realizing that you can combine solar panels and the virtual net metering. A lot of them are finally waking up to that,” Hurley said.
Solar Power In Newtown
In 2005, Newtown joined the Connecticut Clean Energy Communities program, which was designed to assist communities in using clean energy, such as solar, across the state.
Quinn recounted, “Working with the program, we became eligible for a 5 KW system that was installed on the roof of the Reed [Intermediate] School in 2009, and this was our first municipal installation. Over the years, the incentives and goals of these programs have changed, and our commission has tried to take advantage of them.”
In 2011, the commission qualified for a $325,000 grant and used the money to install a ground mount system at Newtown’s wastewater treatment plant on Commerce Road.
“At this time, this is the only system that we own,” Quinn said.
The solar panel installations that have been done since then are through power purchase agreements (PPA), also known as electricity power agreements.
PPAs are negotiated contracts between two parties where a seller generates the electricity and a customer purchases it. In the case of solar, the seller owns and maintains the solar installations.
“The town then purchases the output for a fixed price, which ultimately saves us on our energy costs,” Quinn said.
Through PPAs, Newtown has been able to have systems at the Newtown Middle School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Reed Intermediate School, Parks & Recreation’s garage, the animal control center, Dodgingtown Volunteer Fire Department’s firehouse, and Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue’s firehouse and substation.
Just last year, three more town-owned buildings received solar panel installations: the new Newtown Police Department headquarters, the Newtown Community Center, and Newtown Hook & Ladder Volunteer Fire Company.
According to Quinn, Newtown’s largest solar energy system is a ground mount system at the Newtown transfer station that went online in April 2018. It is a 1 MW AC with an estimated annual output of 1,853,000 kilowatt hours (kWh).
“Unlike the other projects, which tie directly into a facility, the landfill is a virtual net metering project. The energy produced is fed directly into the grid and credits are then issued for up to five town facilities, which in this case are the municipal center, town garage, wastewater treatment plant, water treatment plant, and the police station,” Quinn said.
Newtown also sources virtual net metering through PPAs with two solar plants in the eastern part of the state.
“We contracted for 2 MWs in Hampton, which is applied to the middle school, Sandy Hook, Reed, Head O’ Meadow, and Hawley. An additional 2 MWs from Griswold supports the high school,” Quinn said.
Future Solar Plans
In addition to those sources, Newtown has a solar deal pending.
“Another 1 MW in Hampton is in the works, and that output is planned for the community center, library, ambulance garage, Middle Gate School, and Edmond Town Hall,” Quinn said.
Hurley estimates that will bring the town to a total of 95% to 97% electricity consumption using solar power and will provide them with solar credit, too.
He did add that the goal is not to have 100% solar energy. Instead, the idea is to take advantage of the solar energy while having a balance that can also include natural gas, hydro-power, and nuclear power.
“The most stable electric grids are ones that have very balanced electrical generated sources, and that is really what we support, that balance within the industry,” Hurley said.
Advantages Of Solar Energy
The biggest benefit of Newtown using solar energy, Hurley said, is that it affects every rate payer in the state of Connecticut by supporting the development of “new Connecticut generation.”
Hurley explained, “It helps to cut back on the transmission penalty that we all pay in Connecticut because we don’t have enough of our own generation in-state. There’s a charge that is on every bill — whether it is a commercial bill or it is an institution or private nonprofit, it doesn’t make any difference — it’s included in that. The more that we can generate in-state generation, the less of an impact that the fee will be on all of our bills.
“It’s known as a ‘congestion charge,’ so that is how all rate payers benefit, it’s not just the people that are getting the subsidy for these systems that benefit, but all rate payers benefit by creating additional Connecticut-based generation.”
He added that the development of these alternative programs helps to stabilize rates and has a direct impact on municipal budgets.
“They actually end up providing a net cash savings on the budget of many hundreds of thousands of dollars in Newtown’s case,” Hurley said. “Our overall savings are in the half a million-dollar range that help to stabilize our municipal electric cost and, of course, benefits all the taxpayers in town. Even if they are not getting a solar credit in their house, they are in a sense getting a solar credit on their tax bill.”
The positive financial implications also come with Newtown having to put no money up front for the systems because of the PPAs.
“All we do is pay for the actual use of the electricity. The taxpayers have not had to fork out what is the equivalent of $30 million of investment in these systems,” Hurley said.
He added that the town is paying a lower rate and stabilizing its costs, too, because it is in 20- to 25-year contracts.
Solar energy comes with many benefits for the environment, too, including reducing the town’s carbon footprint.
Quinn said, “Solar provides clean renewable energy, which helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and also helps reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases. The cost of solar has dropped dramatically in recent years, primarily due to a decrease in the price of the panels, making solar competitive with other forms of renewables and fossil fuels.”
The Town of Newtown is not alone in transitioning to more solar energy use. More commercial buildings, church facilities, and residential homes are seeing an uptick in solar panel installations.
Quinn recently was able to go solar at her home in Newtown and has a 4.4 KW AC array. She recommends those interested in solar energy for their homes or businesses visit energizect.com and ctgreenbank.com to get more information on what plans are available.
For more information about the Sustainable Energy Commission and solar energy in Newtown, visit gogreennewtown.com and follow on Facebook at “Go Green Newtown.”