Community Supported Power: Like a CSA for Solar Energy

WESTHAMPTON – Farm-share customers at Intervale Farm can pick up fresh produce such as peas, tomatoes and corn from the South Road farm. And soon, that list may grow to include something more unusual – solar power.

W.H. Bennett Inc., an electrical and energy-contracting company based on Martha’s Vineyard, is proposing a 650-kilowatt solar array to be built on two acres of land leased from the Tracy family at Intervale Farm. The array would be placed several hundred feet off the west side of South Road on a hillside, according to W.H. Bennett owner William Bennett.

In a unique twist, solar energy produced there would be made available to farm-share members of Intervale through Eversource Energy. A portion of that income would be given back to Intervale.

Bennett is calling it “community-sponsored power,” similar to community-supported agriculture.

The Planning Board will consider the proposal during a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9 in Town Hall.

If approved, Bennett said he hopes to break ground on the project this fall.

The undertaking is being managed by Westhampton resident Sam Taylor. (He is married to Gazette photo editor Carol Lollis.)

Bennett said he started installing solar arrays in 1992 and has extensive experience in the field.

Bennett added that he plans to install the panels in Westhampton so that Intervale’s sheep will graze on the grass planted below.

“This mounting method came from Germany,” he said. “The farmland stays farmland.”

By avoiding the use of concrete, Bennett said the array could be completely removed after its life span ends to return the land to what it once was.

Part of Bennett’s business model in Martha’s Vineyard is selling power to nonprofits at discounted rates, and he said he is interested in doing the same in Westhampton.

Zoning concerns

Westhampton has no laws specifically governing the zoning of solar arrays, and resident Ginny Curtis said she has a problem with that.

Curtis said the zoning bylaw Bennett’s project is filed under, Section 3.075, concerns “public utility substations.”

“This is a perfect example that reflects how outdated our zoning bylaws are,” she said.

Curtis said she is concerned about any project that isn’t specifically regulated under town zoning rules. The way this project is being handled, she said, is “reactive rather than proactive.”

“I would like a zoning bylaw in place so that the town can be prepared for any possible (solar) project,” she said.

As for this specific project, Curtis said she will need to learn more about the proposal before forming an opinion on its merits.

Curtis said she hopes the Planning Board drafts a set of zoning rules concerning solar arrays, perhaps based on the model regulations distributed by the state last year.

But if not, a group of residents plan to circulate a petition that would trigger a special Town Meeting to consider such laws, she said.

Bennett said he understands Curtis’ concerns and that he has heard them before.

He considers himself a solar pioneer, one who has built arrays in towns with no solar zoning. One such project went so well that he was asked to help draft zoning rules after its completion, Bennett said.

He suggested that town officials review solar bylaws in others communities and craft their own that would be able to regulate future projects.