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Work has begun outside Valley Shore YMCA (VSYMCA) to install solar panels on part of the organization’s 25 acres of land off of Spencer Plains Road. Surveying started on Jan. 15, and the next step will be to clear trees for the approximately 1,200 panels on about four acres. The project is expected to be functioning by spring.
In 2019, VSYMCA entered an agreement with Middletown-based solar company Clean Focus (formerly Greenskies) to install a 600-kilowatt solar field that will power more than 90 percent of the building’s energy needs, said VSYMCA director Chris Pallatto. The organization will purchase its energy directly from Clean Focus, rather than from Eversource, and for less than it pays currently.
“Clean Focus essentially become[s] our power generator,” said Pallatto. “We [currently] pay about $10,000 a month in electric costs. That will be reduced significantly because of this project,” saving the organization more than an estimated $600,000 over the next 20 years.
“It’s part of our bigger energy conservation efforts,” he continued. “In the past six years, we’ve converted to natural gas, converted to LED lights, and put in highly efficient water heads in our showers that save about 10,000 gallons a month.
“Energy conservation is very important to us and this solar project is great way to continue that effort,” he said.
Any damage to or problem with the panels will be automatically communicated to Clean Focus, which will dispatch a technician to fix it right away.
“The solar company also has targets to meet in order to make the project viable to them,” explained Pallatto. “Their ability to determine our energy rate and also pay for the financing on the project is all contingent on how much energy they’re able to supply the VSYMCA. The panels will always be well maintained and never down for long at all.”
VSYMCA’s project is made possible by the state’s Zero- and Low-Emission Renewable Energy Credit (ZREC and LREC) programs, which were put in place by a 2011 Connecticut law. The programs seek to promote, fund, and expand renewable generation of power in the state and reduce draw on the grid.
Under the program, renewable energy projects such as this one earn RECs, which Clean Focus then sells to Eversource at a fixed rate specified in a 15-year contract. The arrangement, which is subsidized by the state, allows Clean Focus to build and maintain the system at no cost to the customer.
Another facet of the program will allow the Y to effectively rack up credit with Eversource for electricity generated by the solar panels in excess of what the Y uses. This credit is then used when cloud cover (or night skies) reduce or eliminate their effectiveness. Termed “net metering credit,” this system sends unused generated electricity into the grid and accounts for it so that the equivalent amount of energy can be used later at no charge.
The Connecticut initiative is “one of the best programs in the country,” said Clean Focus business developer Ryan Linares. “We’re really excited that we’re breaking ground. The VSYMCA has been phenomenal to work with and I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone.”
The VSYMCA had considered ways in which to leverage its land to help support the organization financially, weighing options such as selling or leasing part of it, according to Pallatto. Ultimately, it determined that dedicating part of the land to a solar project was a winning strategy that retains the entire 25 acres while substantially reducing energy costs.
The organization also looked into the possibility of installing solar panels on the building’s roof, but determined that the roof was not designed to support the load.
The array will stretch from the center of the property to an area adjacent to I-95, so those who drive along the highway will catch a glimpse of the project in progress. The panels absorb light rather than reflect it, Pallatto pointed out, so will not be hazardous to drivers.
Once installed, “[t]here will be two separate days of building closings as we combine our utility services and switch over to the new solar array, as well as intermittent interruptions as we upgrade our existing electrical panels,” according to a VSYMCA email communication about the project. “We will provide as much notice as possible when the dates are confirmed. We will make every effort to minimize impact on members.”
“The nice thing is that after the installation, the system [will be] completely quiet,” Pallatto said. “It doesn’t disturb anybody. It’s passive and it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance or work, it doesn’t make any noise, it doesn’t create any pollution. We’re really excited about that.”
Pallatto said the Y tried to take its neighbors into account throughout the process.
“We worked with our neighbors during the town approval process to modify our original plan, as well as facilitating additional studies,” he said. “Clean Focus was very agreeable and responsive to the concerns of the neighbors regarding the placement of the system and the impact of clearing trees on increased noise from 1-95, as well as the line of site to the array from neighbors homes.
“The current design has the system centrally located on the YMCA property, so it is spaced equidistant between the land owners on either side of the Y. At the town’s request, Clean Focus will be conducting pre- and post-[construction] sound studies and providing additional trees buffer around the array after construction is complete,” he added. “During the process, we held several meetings with the neighbors and were able to accommodate most of the recommendations.”
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