Community Solar Forum at Congregation Beth Elohim

April 19, 2024
A man stands at a lectern with a video screen in the background
Senator Jamie Eldridge, long-time CBE Brotherhood Member, discusses green energy legislation Photo: Alissa Nicol

A Community Solar Forum was held on Sunday, April 9, at Acton’s Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE). After a breakfast organized and served by the CBE Brotherhood, several speakers described the congregation’s parking lot solar array project that recently won a Sunny Award from the US Department of Energy. CBE was one of five Grand Prize winners, announced in November, 2023. The Sunny Awards recognize “community solar projects and programs that employ or develop best practices to increase equitable access to the meaningful benefits of community solar.”

A group stands outside with solar panels mounted on a canopy in the background
Forum attendees tour the solar project with canopy developer Bob Clark of 621 Energy Photo: Alissa Nicol

Rabbi Brahm David referred to the Jewish tradition of environmental stewardship, noting that the Jewish faith prescribes protection of the earth for future generations. Senator Jamie Eldridge offered details on pending legislation, including a bill addressing clean energy facilities siting that aims to strike a balance between local control and the need to construct green energy projects around the Commonwealth to meet the state’s climate goals. A consideration for solar is to avoid destroying carbon-sequestering forests and grasslands, instead installing panels and arrays in the built environment (rooftops and paved parking lots). Eldridge noted the need to address current difficulties in working with utility companies, attributed to bureaucracy, that result in delays getting projects operational. He assured attendees that the bill he filed, An Act to Promote Solar Energy Development, does this. Eldridge also applauded the Fossil Fuel Free designation that the town of Acton has recently received from the MA Department of Energy Resources (DOER) along with nine other communities, the MBTA’s intent to move to electrify trains, and the Mass Energize PlugIn program, which Acton has joined alongside Natick, Wayland and Framingham. He further noted the need to encourage small hydro and geothermal projects in addition to solar.

Acton resident Paul Kampas asked whether any green energy legislation included rebates for electric lawn equipment for individuals or commercial enterprises. Kampas is bringing a Citizens Petition to Acton’s May 6 Annual Town Meeting which aims to add a bylaw to phase-in a ban of gas powered leaf blowers. Eldridge said that such a program could be a part of a bill, and he will look into the possibility.

Barry Nyer, part of CBE’s team that shepherded the solar project, also alluded to the Jewish mandate to act as guardians of the earth, to reduce the carbon footprint, “not only for the congregation, but for the larger community.” The team was also looking for a means to cap the congregation’s rising electricity costs which had reached an annual $30K in 2018 and a solution that would require no upfront investment. They discovered such a solution in a partnership with Bob Clarke of 621 Energy, the contractor who built the array, and Sunwealth Power, the company responsible for maintenance and operation. CBE has seen $13K in savings in the 43 months of operation, and an additional $8K per year in leasing revenue. Sunwealth Power’s Sean Howe explained the process of community solar, noting the low/moderate income subscribers that also benefit from lower electric bills: Wayland Housing Authority, Caritas Communities, and Heading Home.

The congregation held a “going live” Havdalah (end of the Sabbath) Service on October 17, 2020, under the solar canopy with everyone socially distanced during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The canopy has since saved 700 tons of carbon, the offset equivalent of 100,000 gallons of gas. Howe elaborated on details related to the program, including eligibility. This project, like other community solar projects, provides electricity to the grid. Customers can subscribe to community solar projects and save money because the Commonwealth provides incentives to develop community solar projects. Sunwealth actively recruits subscribers from low to middle income based communities. Customers who are currently on the R2 or R4 discounted rate, based on having an income-based environmental justice address according to the Census Tract, are identified as potential subscribers. The program is supported in concert with all the providers: Eversource, National Grid and Unitil. Municipal Light Districts would need to create their own program to implement.

CBE Brotherhood member and Boxborough resident, Andrew Gruskay, asked whether the end-of-life plan for the panels had been determined. According to the team, the congregation has an option at the end of the 20-year contract with Sunwealth to take over ownership and maintenance. The panels degrade in efficiency over time, by about .5% each year, so they could continue to produce energy, or be replaced.

The final speaker, Fred Davis of the Jewish Climate Action Network, highlighted the impact of CBE’s project on other synagogues, providing the inspiration for additional projects. Representatives of other temples were in attendance at the forum, including members of congregations in Wellesley, Somerville and Westwood. Davis left the audience with a final “yasher koach!” (to your strength) for the great work of the congregation, bringing what was originally envisioned as a small purchased array tucked away at the back of the parking lot to the final, and much larger, four-canopy leased project situated prominently and featuring a 300kw capacity, bringing the benefits of clean energy and reduced electricity bills to, not only CBE, the host, but to fifteen low/moderate income subscriber families. (In addition to the three community solar canopies, CBE hosts one canopy that provides electricity directly to the building.)

Congregation Beth Elohim provided handouts about resources to subscribe to community solar to all the attendees, and will be happy to share these with readers of this paper. The forum was co-sponsored by Energize Acton and the Jewish Climate Action Network.

The event was filmed by ActonTV and will be available for streaming. To further celebrate the Sunny Award, CBE will host a press event with Congresswoman Lori Trahan on Sunday morning, May 5, outside under the canopies at Congregation Beth Elohim, 133 Prospect Street, Acton, MA. For more information, please email Matt Liebman.


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