‘Democracy in energy’: Solar canopy at River Valley Co-Op to power store, provide energy discounts for 65 residents

  • Easthampton resident Ann Darling will get energy discounts for a portion of the electricity used at her home from a canopy solar array at River Valley Co-Op’s Route 10 store. The canopy, part of which is pictured at left, is part of a community solar program that will produce enough energy to power the store and pay a portion of the electricity costs for 65 low-income households. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton resident Ann Darling will get energy discounts on her home’s electricity bill from a canopy solar array at River Valley Co-Op’s Route 10 store. The canopy, part of which is pictured at left, is part of a community solar program that will produce enough energy to power the store and pay a portion of the electricity costs for 65 low-income households. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton resident Ann Darling will get energy discounts on her home’s electricity bill from a canopy solar array at River Valley Co-Op’s Route 10 store. The canopy, part of which is pictured at left, is part of a community solar program that will produce enough energy to power the store and pay a portion of the electricity costs for 65 low-income households. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Solar panels at River Valley Co-op off Route 10 in Easthampton. The canopy is part of a community solar program that will produce enough energy to power the store and enable 65 low-income households to get energy discounts on their electricity bills. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2023 5:01:23 PM
Modified: 10/11/2023 5:00:16 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A canopy solar array at River Valley Co-Op’s Route 10 store will produce enough energy starting next month to power the building and provide energy discounts to 65 local low-income households.

Collectively, those households will save nearly $20,000 yearly on their electric bills.

Easthampton resident Ann Darling is one of the household participants in the community solar program, which has been in the works since 2017 and is a partnership among River Valley Co-op, PV Squared Solar, Co-op Power and other groups.

“I totally want to support in whatever way I can the transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, and solar is one of those options,” Darling said. “I live in a small four-unit condo, and there’s no way that we could afford solar panels. … This is a little something.”

Community solar is a type of solar energy program where a number of individuals can subscribe to and share the benefits of a single solar system.

In many cases, like the project in Easthampton, community solar programs allow low-income people who often cannot install solar panels on their own properties to access clean, renewable energy while simultaneously receiving credits on their electricity bills.

“We’ve all been hit with inflation … and energy is one of the things that has really skyrocketed in price,” said Rochelle Prunty, general manager at River Valley Co-Op. “Being able to mitigate that a little bit with solar energy from the array just helps the whole community.”

Half the energy produced by the solar array above the River Valley parking canopy will support the grocery store, providing it with electricity at a 10% discount. The other half of the array will support 65 low-income households or households in environmental justice communities.

To enroll in the program, participants must qualify as low-income or live in an environmental justice community in western Massachusetts as defined by the state. They also must be an Eversource utility customer.

Participants are then able to purchase credits that are produced by the solar array for 85% of their value. Those credits pay their electric bill, adding up to around a combined $20,000 in yearly savings for everyone enrolled, according to Lynn Benander, president of Co-op Power, the sustainable energy cooperative involved in the River Valley project.

“Twenty thousand dollars a year from just half of that canopy array is incredible savings for people,” Benander said. “It’s really fun.”

Not only do families participating in the program reap the financial benefits of the solar program, but they also become member-owners of Co-op Power.

Along with around 1,200 member-owners — more than half of whom belong to low-income BIPOC communities — participants have an equal seat at the table in decision-making around solar installations, development and outreach.

Since its formation, Co-op Power members have developed 4.5 megawatts of community solar, and created a dozen businesses and over 400 green jobs, while also advocating for community-focused solar legislation.

“Democracy in energy is something I think we need a lot more of instead of these centrally controlled plants that pollute and really aren’t accountable to their communities,” said Darling.

Grocery store benefit

Beyond serving low-income communities, the program has a number of environmental benefits.

“Grocery stores have especially high electrical usage for refrigeration and we had always heard it was not feasible to reach net zero with on-site solar for grocery stores because of this,” said Prunty, adding that refrigeration amounts to 80% of the building’s electrical load.

“I’ve always been told, ‘grocery stores use so much energy, you can never generate enough energy on-site to cover it all,’” she explained. “We pushed on that assumption.”

That’s where the parking canopy comes in.

While River Valley’s rooftop array was already producing around 130 kilowatts of energy, the parking canopy will provide another 800 kilowatts, bringing the total power production to just under a megawatt, which is close to the store uses for electricity each year.

“They’re the only grocery store that we know of that’s offsetting 100% of its electric use over the course of the year on site,” Benander said.

“As far as I know, this is groundbreaking for grocery stores,” Prunty said.

Although parking canopy solar projects tend to be expensive, they come with very few environmental concerns, unlike field ground-mount solar developments, which can involve cutting down trees that naturally store carbon and help with climate change.

“Land use is a really important issue for all of us, especially here in western Massachusetts. If we can build solar on our parking lots and our large industrial rooftops, that’s really the best solution that we have,” Benander said.

In addition to environmental benefits, parking canopy solar comes with a host of other benefits, including a reduction in asphalt maintenance costs, shaded parking, and cover from snow in the winter.

“This team produced a very beautiful array that shows what we can do with rooftops and parking lots, and I’m really excited about that,” Benander said.

The project also includes battery storage on-site, so that when an excess of electricity is produced during the day, it can be stored and put back onto the grid in the evening.

“We didn’t do that because it was the most financially expedient thing to do; we did it because it was the best community investment,” Benander said.

As for financing the $3.8 million project, Co-op Power helped navigate state and federal incentive programs, while River Valley financed pre-development work. Project financing ultimately came from Sunwealth, but Prunty said the long-term plan is for River Valley to purchase, own and manage the solar array.

Other project partners include solar installer PV Squared, engineers at Solar Design Associates, battery system manufacturer EOS Energy Systems, contractor Wright Builders, architects Thomas Douglas Architects, and engineers from Berkshire Design.

“We hope this system inspires others about what can be possible,” said Prunty. “We also hope that the many barriers we faced in this project can be addressed with better regulations and incentive support programs to make more installations like this feasible for future projects.”

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.
Sign up for our free email updates
Daily Hampshire Gazette Headlines
Daily Hampshire Gazette Contests & Promotions
Daily Hampshire Gazette Evening Top Reads
Daily Hampshire Gazette Breaking News
Daily Hampshire Gazette Obits
Daily Hampshire Gazette Sports
Daily Hampshire Gazette PM Updates
Daily Hampshire Gazette Weekly Top Stories
Valley Advocate Newsletter
Daily Hampshire Gazette Dining & Entertainment

Jobs



Support Local Journalism


Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

23 Service Center Road
Northampton, MA 01060
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy