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Solar: Installment #1 – A report card, late September 2010

As of late September / early October 2010, a report card is in. How well did Concord’s governance process serve us, in this first case, the Article 64 proposal for an industrial-scale solar array?

Two measures offer themselves: One is the quality of bids now in hand. The other is the process – the history over about a year – that produced the bids.

We begin with the 'Bids' panel below. (Updated Oct 2: Savings in 'The bid' section.) The panel labeled 'Process (Governance)' opens with a mouse-over.

Do you need an Executive Summary first, before you dive into the detail? Then go here.

The bids – four aspects: I parcels bid on, II the bidding process, III the bidder selected, and IV the bid itself

Parcels – there are (actually) four sections of land in the RFP, in total 14.43 acres

  1. The forested section – 4.41 acres of trees. The Town Manager has taken this land off the table. There is significant opposition across town. Trees contribute to carbon sequestration. Also to the quality of Concord life.
  2. Ammendolia land – 4.82 acres. Falsely dismissed at Town Meeting as not farmable. If you have doubt, this video takes you there firsthand (courtesy of Concord Patch and its Editor, Betsy Levinson).
  • If you need more, go here for an eloquent precis by Cherrie Corey, published on Deborah Bier’s Concord Magazine blog. And here for a dramatic display of photos.
  • An abundant community garden – and a community of gardeners – is thriving. The Ammendolia parcel surely is protected by the commitment not to use agricultural land.

Waste water treatment facility, two parts: the ‘triangle’ and an unused filter bed.

  1. The triangle – 2.37 acres – took itself off the table. There were no bids for it.
  2. An unused filter bed – 2.83 acres – has been given up to solar. This is at a time when the waste water treatment plant approaches capacity and is only at the beginning of a plan to deal with future needs.
  • Apparently other pieces of land may suffice for future treatment plant capacity. But this presently unused infrastructure, its underground plumbing and carefully constructed berms, would be sacrificed. And this part of the WWTF plant is being given over early in the planning process for new capacity, before those treatment needs are clearly delineated.

Bid process

Forty-four vendors asked for bid packages. Fourteen vendors showed up to walk-through the parcels. Two vendors submitted bids.

The vendor community voted with its feet, making clear the relative undesirability of the parcels on offer.

Winning bidder – Tioga Energy

Tioga Energy is in its third year of existence. This compares with recognized industry leaders, such as SunPower, which has instead a twenty-five year history. Tioga’s web presence gives the appearance of a financial packager, rather than coming from a technology and industry base. (A financial packager was of course also the choice in a fateful CMLP power purchase three years ago.)

Tioga does not compete in what one analyst deems ‘utility scale’ solar. Instead its niche is smaller projects, where even rooftop is feasible. Its typical installation, in its brief history, is more the size of Concord’s unused filter bed by itself, not larger parcels.

Tioga appears to have a competent management team paired with a track record that reflects its ‘small parcel’ market niche and brief lifespan.

Tioga’s bid is effectively half the price of the other bid (roughly double the output for about the same price). When there is such a disparity in bid results, prudent vetting requires some explanation that makes the difference plausible – rather than accept the ‘gift horse without looking in its mouth.’ No such vetting has come out in the relevant committee meetings.

The bid – tradeoffs

Two objectives compete, as we assess the bid. Reducing carbon is presumably the reason why Concord would do solar. But savings on the cost of electricity also attract.

If Concord chooses the Tioga bid, for all parcels, it will fail to reduce almost 2,000 tons of carbon. That is annually. For each of the next twenty years – in total, Concord will not reduce almost 40,000 tons of carbon.

On the other side, there is a competing objective. Concord might reduce its cost for electricity in two ways.

On the portion bought from Tioga, the saving appears dramatic ­– for instance, the 11 cent per kWH bid price perhaps reduces by 9 cents, so electricity comes for a steal at 2 cents. But the portion from Tioga is a tiny part of Concord’s electricity needs, perhaps only half a percent. The saving actually is relatively quite small.

In addition, solar might reduce Concord’s peak demand for electricity, and that improves our cost across all electricity bought outside. But that saving is certainly not as large, for instance, as the $2.3 million lost by not locking in the Morgan Stanley project. In fact testimony at the Selectmen's hearing Sep 27 effectively nets out savings to perhaps $65 thousand – less than a third of a percent of the roughly $20 million in total CMLP energy purchases annually.

The whole point in transitioning to renewables is carbon reduction. With that objective, and the cost saving (foregone, if the project is not implemented) immaterial, this bid does not deliver on Concord’s objective.

In practical terms: As already proposed in a draft policy circulating in the CMLP board, Concord might have spent the last year seeking out partners for New England wind projects to implement jointly. Staff and volunteer time is not infinite, nor are the funds. Then time and money – spent where we can see is more effective – might have the impact that Concord can make for the environment.

The above is just a summary of the tug and pull between potential for carbon reduction and the attraction of possible cost savings. For fuller treatment, go here or use the link in the navbar.

Governance process – the year of history, leading up

The situation that emerges in the first half of the report card – written necessarily to be a neutral, objective look at the facts overall – makes it impossible to feel positive about the proposed solar array. How did we get to such a point – what was the preceding town process, over roughly the last year?

First, we look at the period since Town Meeting. Then, we turn to successive questions, starting from the prior roughly half-year leading up to Town Meeting – in all, we look back over about a year.

The recent five months, since Article 64 was voted at Town Meeting in the spring

Staff time heavily invested –

Senior town staff – department heads – along with other staff, citizen volunteers, and elected and appointed officials, have devoted serious time and worked hard. How is it that they could have been sent on such an errand, where – work as hard as they may – the outcome is not desirable?

Please note that the town staff themselves performed in exemplary fashion, throughout, at least in the view of this citizen and observer. Given the task conveyed to them, they discharged it with the quality we have come to understand is the high standard they set for themselves. Our manifold thanks for fine staff work.

An attempt to renege on commitment

At one point, a citizen member of the solar committee tried to renege on the commitment at Town Meeting not to use agricultural land. (Ultimately, that attempt was rebuffed.)  Reneging on commitments is a (serious) violation of the trust implicitly flowing from citizen to government.

Whatever the motivation at the time, clearly this ploy would have relaxed the land constraints imposed by the process to date and under which some proponents chafed – constraints which ultimately have led to parcels both that the vendor community largely rejected and that also are not desirable across large numbers of Concord citizens.

How did we get to an extremity where reneging on commitments – a most serious rupture – was tempting, and so was deemed acceptable to try?

No clearly superior and readily available site

Article 64 requires there be no “clearly superior and readily available site.” While committees in the last five months have tried to rule out other options, many interested citizens have seen the landfill as, actually, the place where solar might or should be considered. Unlike any of the other parcels that town staff and citizen volunteers have labored over, the landfill presents 30 to 35 acres of open space.

That is more than twice the acreage of all the parcels to which the last five months have been constrained. And the landfill would not remove community gardens or wooded forests.

Then, arguments arise, “the landfill is not on the table.” But the Town Manager is quoted publicly, saying, the “landfill site ‘might be used later on.’ ”

If the landfill is available “later,” so it is available now with the appropriate process. And clearly it is superior.

So there is a parcel that might make sense.  But. We have to rush to finish all this by a deadline, right? There is no time to do this in a sound fashion, right?

What’s the rush?

The Town administration, apparently in part to secure votes at Town Meeting, argued that the project must be ‘substantially complete’ by the end of this year, 2010. Otherwise, the administration argued, Concord could not be certain of favorable tax credits for the vendor, and hence of Concord’s savings. Five months later – effectively now [end of September 2010] – the Town Manager is quoted telling the Board of Selectmen “The contract will be awarded in the spring, with a target of July 1, 2011 for completion.”

When, at what time are Concord citizens supposed to believe statements from their government? Is the date December 31, 2010 – when dissembling is convenient to sway voters – but July 1, 2011, when reality can no longer be ignored?

When we cannot trust the process, citizen confidence in Concord’s government begins to evaporate. Remedial steps are mandatory.

So in reality – there is no rush to ‘get all this done yesterday’!

How did we get here? – from inception in 2009

This recitation, of the last five months, is not a desirable outcome – Concord can afford quality governance, far beyond this litany of undesirables. The answer to how we got here lies, of course, in the roughly half-year prior to Town Meeting, since inception of the idea locally. By the time of Town Meeting, the die was pretty well cast, for this solar array’s prospects.

Over the beginning half-year or so of the solar ‘process’ – back to some time in 2009 – the matter was kept to a small handful of people. Apparently a couple of entrepreneurs approached the town about capitalizing on the current federal, and state, subsidy regimes for solar. Eventually a leader in the environmental movement was recruited; his presence gave a respectable face.

Still, the body in town government charged with oversight of CMLP and electricity purchases, the CMLP board, continued to be left out of the discussion.  (Electricity purchases comprise about 80 percent of the plant’s annual expenditure, a large and vital amount in other words.). At the February 2010 CMLP board meeting, this year, a board member expressed his anger publicly at only just finding out, finally.

If instead from the beginning, Concord had followed its time-honored and proven process, we might have enjoyed the quality of governance we believe we exemplify.

  • Staff and citizen time would not have been sent in pursuit of parcels that had little or no prospect to produce workable solutions. The vendor community might not have been so turned off – so that Concord might not have given itself such a black eye with vendors, which matters going forward.
  • The spectacle of an attempt to renege on a commitment would have had no incentive in the first place. There would not have been so little usable land that a violation of trust seemed worth trying, to alleviate the shortage.
  • The landfill could have been properly vetted, from the beginning. We could already be well into the process, to secure state approval for the change of use, as well as negotiations with interested parties.
  • Hopefully, we would not have heard dissembling about ‘hurry up and do it,’ for unfounded reasons.

How might we get to such a better place?

What might we have done? – compare with the process for a town fiber network

Compare our solar year with the process used for a town fiber network: Years – literally years – before any substantive bid process, there was the sort of vetting that may produce quality results. And has done so, resoundingly, in Smart Grid.

There were not one, but two, blue-ribbon citizen committees, thought leaders, to work the analysis carefully across a cross-section of ideas. That extended, in total, over a number of years. Just as with solar, there was a time when fiber install costs had not come down to a workable level. Then a nationally recognized expert was engaged to scope out and test, variously, including pilot trials, and through several projects, the best approach for Concord.

The governance process, for a town network, has been exemplary; and the results have benefited richly. Especially, Concord and her citizens are, and will be, enjoying the fruits of a governance process well done.

Our environmental choices, in this light? With only a smidgen of the fiber process – certainly not years, but instead foreshortened to well-guided months – we could be on our way to sound choices. So that Concord makes its own transition to an environmentally-aware and -active community.

That is – if a quality process had been the choice and commitment of Concord’s government, from the beginning.

What do we do now? – Conclusion

As we have seen, the rush to ‘get all this solar done yesterday’ was a false alarm, apparently in part calculated to curry our vote at Town Meeting.  So now, Concord and its government can settle back to enjoy a sound process, instead. We do not have to rush into a decision. We can focus on the steps to make well-founded choices for renewable energy.

  1. Clearly, a central choice is – first – ‘when is solar a sound choice?’ It appears that solar will be vital to a renewable future. But only when its costs come into line.
  2. Then – when it is time for solar – we can proceed deliberately to choose sites with care and consideration, including that we honor the democratic process. At least that is the ideal by which Concord would like to be known.

What to do immediately? To repeat from above, and add, in practical terms:

As already proposed in a draft policy circulating in the CMLP board, Concord can now begin seeking out partners for New England wind projects to implement jointly. We can reduce carbon by the amount that technology gives us the ability to do – now.

And we can begin to look seriously – and with quality process – at parcels in Concord that might be suitable for solar. Then take appropriate steps, for when the time is right. Perhaps we will begin to qualify the landfill, in the state permitting process. Perhaps we will begin in earnest to consider all that might be necessary to use the WR Grace land.

Concord might have the impact that we can make for the environment. If we will attend faithfully to a quality governance process, that for which we would like to be known.

Our report card on the solar array project seems to have manifold food for thought.