Proposed solar parks may cut city costs

Johnston Sun Rise ·

A Warwick resident and certified public accountant versed in the tax benefits of sustainable energy is advancing a plan for two Warwick solar parks that could reduce the city’s electric costs while providing tax revenues from properties that render little or no taxes.

Ralph Palumbo, managing director and owner of Southern Sky Renewable Energy RI and a CPA with offices in Providence, said Tuesday his goal is to educate the community on the benefits of solar power and “design a transaction where they [the city] can’t lose.”

Palumbo took the first step to informing the community of his plans last night at a meeting at City Hall. Neighbors to both proposals were invited to attend, view his plans, and ask questions. The next step, taking into consideration issues raised at the meeting that was held after deadline for today’s Beacon, will be to submit the proposals to the Planning Board followed by action of the City Council.

Palumbo is looking for tandem approval of the solar parks. One would be on about 10 acres on West Shore Road on the east side of Amtrak and north of the Apponaug underpass. The wooded site is comprised of some wetlands in a hallow next to a residential area. The second park of nearly 36 acres would be off Kilvert Street. It is part of what was formerly the Leviton Manufacturing property. That land is a brownfield and unsuitable for development without considerable costly remediation. Part of the site has a recorded conservation easement.

Palumbo, who has built three solar parks in Massachusetts and has four additional parks in various phases of development in that state as well as Lincoln and North Providence in Rhode Island, said he surveyed Warwick before coming up with the proposed parks. He said his aim was to find sites that didn’t offer much development opportunity and could be transformed into community assets. He would purchase the West Shore Road site and lease the property on Kilvert Street.

While the city would share in reduced electric costs because of the parks, Palumbo said Warwick would not be responsible for raising the capital to build the parks or to manage and maintain them. He said there are two components to the city proposal – net metering credits and incremental taxpayers.

“We have been working diligently on this solar park project,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said in response to an email. “First, it takes landlocked property that has very little use and makes it an income producing venture. And in saving the city money, it is an environmentally friendly illustration of renewable energy policies.”

Palumbo said the current financial value of each kilowatt hour produced by the system would be 14.733 cents, meaning the Warwick parks would annually produce $1.4 million in meter credits. He said Warwick would make a two-cent “spread” that would amount to about $200,000 annually. Palumbo reasons there is no way for the city to lose as the credit is applied to existing bills.

“They [the city] would always be on the right side of the equation,” he said. He is proposing a 25-year contract, the expected life expectancy of a solar park.

Asked about the contract, Avedisian said: “I have the Municipal New Metering Finance Agreement on my desk. Peter Ruggiero [city solicitor] will be reviewing it and then I will submit a docketing memo to the Council for their consideration.”

According to narratives filed with the City Planning Department, the West Shore Road site would be a 0.9-megawatt park comprised of 42 rows of photovoltaic panels laid out in three areas on the property. Palumbo estimated the capital cost of the park at $2 million. The park would have two transformers and be surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence.

The larger 5.4-megawatt Kilvert Street park would have 63 rows of solar panels. It is undeveloped land and abuts the Airport Connector to the south. Palumbo put the cost of that park at approximately $12 million.

“It’s good for the environment and it’s good for the city,” Palumbo said of the two parks. He pointed out that the parks would produce no traffic, no odors and no noise. His hope is to gain necessary Department of Environmental Management approvals (both properties have wetlands) as well as city approvals this year with construction starting in the fall. The West Shore Road site he would hope to bring online by the second quarter of 2017. Because of more complex waste management issues relating to Kilvert Street, he said that park is expected to take longer.

City Planner William DePasquale said solar parks could be a “two-way sword.” He pointed to the challenges of locating parks, yet the benefits of no traffic and energy sustainability.

While state law exempts solar panels from tangible taxes, K. Joseph Shekarchi, who is representing Southern Sky, said the company is considering a payment as part of its contract with the city.

“I’m being a good citizen and jumping in and paying taxes,” Palumbo said. He put tax revenues for the two parks at $35,000.

“To me,” the mayor said, “this solar park initiative is a win-win situation for the developer, the city, and the environment.”