By Daymond Steer
CONWAY — Conway Village Fire District voters will be asked next month to approve a 20-year lease between district commissioners and NhSolar Garden of Portsmouth, which wants to install solar panels at the district's former wastewater treatment lagoons.
The solar arrays would be installed on the village's decommissioned wastewater treatment lagoons. Four out of five lagoons are being shut down because they are no longer necessary because an interconnect between Conway Village and North Conway was completed last year. One lagoon will be kept for emergencies.
Last April, town voters allowed selectmen to enter into two 20-year leases with the company for projects at the landfill and transfer station. The passage of Article 25, which voters approved 980-130, lets NhSolar Garden lease nearly 2.5 million square feet (about 57 acres) at the landfill. Article 26, which passed 982-126, allows 250,000 square feet to be leased at the transfer station. Construction is expected to happen in the fall.
The district's special town meeting has been scheduled for June 8 at 6 p.m. at the firehouse at 97 Main St., though the warrant has not yet been posted.
District commissioners will likely OK the warrant at their May 18 meeting.
"In order for us to catch up to the town ... we needed to have a meeting a little bit sooner than next March," said Commissioner Mike DiGregorio at the district board's meeting on May 4.
"We talked to our legal counsel, and they indicated this was the way to go, and since we weren't spending any money, we didn't need to go through the court system or a judge to get approval," DiGregorio said.
Also at the May 4 meeting, DiGregorio and board chairman Steve Bamsey met with Andrew Kellar of NhSolar Garden, and Clarke Fenner of Stellar Energy in Rye.
Kellar provided a handout saying that NhSolar Garden and Stellar Energy could cut the village's annual electric bill of $82,000 by $54,500. That amount was arrived at by including a land lease generating $39,000 per year, a tax pilot of $10,500 per year and $5,000 power savings in year one.
If the project is completed as expected (a 525 kW array system) and Conway Village becomes an electric customer of NhSolar Garden, Solar Garden could meet the village's 656,000 kWh per year demand at a rate that's about 10 percent below the district's estimated current electric rate of 8 cents per kWh.
Solar Garden also probably would allow up to about 600 customers in Eversource's utility area to sign up with NhSolar Garden and achieve the same discount as the fire district. These customers could be purchasing power for schools, homes, churches and businesses. They would be signed up on a first come, first served basis, but Kellar said he would like to see as many village residents benefit as possible.
Solar Garden has a similar program with New Hampshire Electric Co-Op customers involving other projects.
Customers would be able to choose which solar project they want to purchase power from. For instance, they could choose to get their power from the village's project, the town's project or some other project.
"The good news is we have that other big project in town, too," said Kellar.
Kellar said they would need about 20 acres in total between the Conway Village lagoons and a wooded area. Kellar said they would try to keep the number of trees cut to a minimum.
Asked if the commissioners would sell any timber from cut trees, DiGregorio and Bamsey said they would.
"If there is a dime to be made, we will try to find it," said Bamsey. "Quite honestly, it is a great opportunity for the residents of the district."
The lease with Solar Garden is for 20 years, and there would be two five-year extensions.
The Sun asked commissioners if there would be any reason to vote against the proposed contract.
"I couldn't imagine why they wouldn't support it," said DiGregorio, adding that town voters supported Solar Garden by a ratio of about 10 to 1.
Tom Buco, the third commissioner, was not in attendance at last week's meeting. But he sent the Sun a statement on his position.
"I do not want to recommend this long-term lease until the residents of the district come to the special meeting on June 8, ask questions and if they get satisfactory answers then tell us to vote for it," said Buco.
A second warrant article will also have to be voted on at the special meeting in June. That article will ask voters if they would be willing to sell a 5-acre parcel of land on Pine Hill/Knob Hill to the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust for $5,000. The parcel is surrounded on three sides by nearly 430 acres that the USVLT will purchase from the Kennett Co. The district bought the land in the 1970s for the purpose of putting up water tanks, but the tanks ended up being installed on Bald Hill.
"That property is no longer needed; it has no value to the district," said Bamsey. "Nothing is going to be done with it."
Doug Burnell of Upper Saco Valley Land Trust said that the land could be built upon but would require a lengthy driveway.
There will be a second public hearing on the Land Trust proposal on May 18 at 5 p.m. at the fire district administrative building on West Main Street. Following that will be a public hearing on the proposed Solar Garden lease.