ORLEANS — The long and frustrating road to the installation of a solar canopy at Nauset Regional Middle School is nearing an end.
After two years of delays caused by pandemic-related supply-chain shortages and steep price increases, construction of the canopy is now finished, and the regional school district is awaiting an OK from Eversource to flip the switch on the solar panels, which Cape and Vineyards Electric Cooperative (CVEC) Executive Director Maria Marasco says will come by the end of February.
The project is part of an agreement between the school, CVEC, and solar energy developer DSD Renewables to install solar panels above the parking lot, with an option for the school to purchase the canopy after a 20-year leasing period.
CVEC, whose members include 23 Massachusetts towns, Barnstable County, and the Cape Light Compact, buys and distributes energy through municipal projects across the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard.
The agreement was first signed by CVEC and DSD in June 2020. It stipulated that DSD would design and install the solar canopy for free in exchange for a fixed net energy price of 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, paid to DSD by the school district. Nauset would also pay an administrative fee of one cent per hour to CVEC for managing the project.
But an increase in steel prices and backlogs of equipment stalled the project, according to Marasco.
“The delays are indicative of what the entire U.S. market has been facing,” she said. “Post-Covid constraints on supply chains and the subsequent impact of inflation has affected the majority of solar PV projects.”
By the time Eversource signed off on an interconnection agreement in November 2021 and DSD could begin installing the panels, “pricing for steel went through the roof,” said Marasco.
The 4.5 cents per KWh was no longer feasible, said Jim Nowack, Nauset’s assistant director of finance and operations. “They said they could no longer do it for that price,” he said. “That was when I kind of had sour grapes.”
In March 2022, DSD, CVEC, and the school district agreed on a new price, 14.5 cents per KWh — a 222-percent increase — according to documents obtained by the Independent through a public records request.
“We amended the price to adjust to these volatile and extraordinary market conditions,” Marasco said.
But Nowack and Nauset Regional School Committee Chair Chris Easley felt they had no choice. “We did have to go forward with it,” Nowack said, but “the contract was written more in their favor.”
“It was take it or leave it,” Easley said. “You’re hung over a barrel. You don’t have a choice because you’re already invested in it. They were manipulating the financial wherewithal of the school. This is an instance of a public entity taking advantage of a public entity.”
Construction finally began in July 2022, and the district was told the project would be completed by the third week of September, said Nowack. It wasn’t done until the end of December, he said.
Tim Magner, senior director of originations for DSD, blamed the pandemic. “When you’re building these projects in a post-Covid environment, there’s going to be delays,” he said.
Easley said the construction equipment in the school parking lot created a hazard. “Now we find ourselves without working solar panels, with a safety issue in our parking lot, and with nobody to call,” he said. “It really has been a bait-and-switch and a screw job on our school system.”
Easley said there has been little communication between CVEC and the school district for the last two years. “They have been M.I.A.,” he said. “They haven’t supported us at all in the process.”
“They didn’t even come out to see the project until September,” said Nowack. He surmised that this was because, halfway through the project in March 2021, the previous CVEC executive director, Liz Argo, was dismissed and “then there was nobody for a while.”
CVEC executive committee minutes from a Jan. 28, 2021 meeting state that members “expressed their concerns about L. Argo’s performance” and that “several members raised questions about ethics issues.”
Easley said that Argo was “selling packages that were exaggerated,” meaning that “the prices were much lower than they turned out to be. She was making promises that were unsustainable. We are in the aftermath of that.”
But Marasco said that “one had nothing to do with the other” and that Easley’s speculations were “a hard sell.”
When contacted by a reporter, Argo said that she was fired because of “personality conflicts.” She declined further comment.
Magner said that the original price of 4.5 cents did not assume interconnection costs from Eversource, which would charge DSD for upgrading the power grid to support a new generation source. “That initial pricing assumed none of that interconnection cost,” he said.
Magner added that the new price is “tied to local grid constraints and equipment needed by Eversource to alleviate such constraints after the solar is turned on.”
Looking at the Benefits
Nowack said that, despite the price increase, the project will still save Nauset money. The district is currently paying 18.5 cents per KWh for the middle school, and the 14.5-cent rate will save around $17,400 a year, he said. And he argued that not having to pay the capital costs of the canopy will save the district “way over a million dollars.”
Marasco also said that CVEC and DSD will re-evaluate the purchase agreement in the coming year because the Inflation Reduction Act will allow DSD to receive a 30-percent tax credit.
“As soon as the federal regulations come out, we will take pencil to paper and revisit the power purchase agreement,” Marasco said.
Nowack said that although the process has been frustrating, the benefits still outweigh the costs. “It was a tough road, and it was a long road,” he said, “but we are still getting good environmental benefits from this.”