HINGHAM — With temperatures stuck in the upper 20s Thursday morning, many of the commuters waiting for trains at the West Hingham station could be found huddled in parked cars under a cavernous metal canopy that now stretches over much of the station’s parking lot. Above it sat hundreds of solar panels waiting to convert the sun’s energy into electricity.
“I think it’s a good use of space, I love it,” Sita Thottempudi of Hingham said as she waited for the train.
But the canopy, one of 37 solar arrays the MBTA hopes to have installed at stations across the South Shore and in suburbs around Boston, wasn’t doing anything Thursday except keeping snow off commuter’s cars. Despite being completed more than a month ago, the panels atop the canopies at West Hingham station and others at Nantasket Junction Station have remained offline amid a dispute between the MBTA and the town’s municipal power utility over environmental liabilities. Construction on the Hingham canopies started over the summer.
“They want us to accept responsibility for any environmental issues at the site. That I can’t agree to,” said Paul Heanue, general manager of the Hingham Municipal Light Plant, the town’s electrical utility. Heanue said he is also ironing out details about insurance with the MBTA, but added that there isn’t a timeline for when the panels will come online.
The two Hingham solar arrays and a third in Norwood are the first phase of a project, announced in 2016, that is aimed at creating a new way for the T to make money off its properties while also increasing sources of renewable energy in Massachusetts. The arrays are built, maintained and owned by a developer who leases the space from the T, which expects to see $55 million in rental income and savings on snow removal costs by the end of the 20-year lease.
“Private sector partnerships like these are essential to the T’s ability to focus on controlling costs and improving its core system to deliver the reliable public transit system its riders deserve,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in announcing the project in 2016.
In Norwood, municipal light superintendent Jim Collins said that his utility is waiting for the MBTA to iron out details with Hingham before they finalize an agreement with the agency.
Lisa Battiston, a spokeswoman for the MBTA, said that the solar panels would come online in Hingham in the “near future.”
“The developer, the MBTA, and Hingham Municipal Light Plant are working cooperatively to connect the project to the power grid and bring the work to full completion,” she said.
When they do come online, the MBTA sees the canopies as a win-win, generating revenue through rental income, reducing its snow removal costs by shielding parts of its parking lots and helping the state improve its renewable energy portfolio.
“The MBTA will realize approximately $1.9 million annually if all 37 proposed canopies are installed throughout the portfolio,” Battiston said.
The project, now operated by True Green Capital Management, was originally developed by MAP Energy Solutions and Omni Navitas Holdings. The developers are responsible for building and maintaining the canopies at no cost to the MBTA and make money by selling the electricity generated at the parking lots to the energy utilities.
“The two solar canopies will produce approximately 1,800,000 kWh’s of electricity annually which will be sold to Hingham,” said Jill Donahue, a spokeswoman for Omni Navitas, referring to the projects in Hingham.
Donahue said the energy produced by the panels in Hingham would equal the annual energy used by about 200 Massachusetts homes, according to a greenhouse gas equivalence calculator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That would eliminate the consumption of around 3,000 barrels of oil each year.
The canopies have already proved popular among MBTA commuters in Hingham.
“They’re using unused space,” commuter Eugene Choi said Thursday morning. “I think its a great investment in renewable energy.”
Hingham resident Craig Donnelly said he would like to see solar panels all over the place to help create “much needed” renewable energy.
“I think they’re great — I think they should be everywhere,” Donnelly said.
The MBTA hopes to have solar panels installed at the Quincy Adams and Braintree subway stations and at most South Shore commuter rail stations, including those in Cohasset, North Scituate and South Weymouth. Battiston said they will come in the “near future.”
When Governor Baker announced the initiative for the MBTA solar panels at the end of 2016 he said it was part of an “open for business” strategy to leverage under-utilized state property. The state is now pushing a new program called “Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target” (SMART) to further incentivize solar growth.
After two years of negotiation, the program will change the way people are paid through utilities for energy creation and pushes the kind of solar projects the MBTA is working on.
“The SMART program is designed to encourage appropriate siting of solar projects by incentivizing projects on rooftops, parking lots, and landfills,” The state’s Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said in September when the governor announced the program’s launch. “By balancing the importance of protecting our state’s natural resources while continuing to move towards a clean energy future, the Commonwealth is positioned to continue significant solar development and growth.”
The MBTA’s panels would join a number of projects on the South Shore and across the state. The Solar Energy Industries Association, which tracks solar projects by U.S. congressional district, said there are around 30,000 solar projects in the Massachusetts 8th and 9th Districts.
The trade group said there are now around 82,000 projects statewide. The number of new projects being built annually had increased in each of the last six years.
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