The 30 foot drop of the Pawtucket Falls, optimal for powering textile mills, is what lured Nathan Appleton and Patrick Jackson to what was then East Chelmsford and inspired the construction of the nation’s first planned industrial city, sparking a revolution.
Nearly 200 years later, city leaders remain committed to sustainable practices and the production of renewable energy.
Friday morning, on an ironically gloomy rain-filled day, city and state officials gathered at the former Westford Street Landfill (“The Dump”) to break ground on an innovative project guaranteed to bring a ray of sunshine into the city – a 1.5 mega-watt, 6,000 panel solar array. It is expected to be completed by June 2013.
All design, construction, operation and maintenance costs for the solar farm will be covered by Framingham-based energy services company Ameresco.
In return, Ameresco will provide the city with discounted electricity from the panels over the next 20 years. Once the 20 years are over, the city will retain ownership of the array.
City Manager Bernie Lynch said the site had served its purpose first as a place at which to dispose of trash, then as a place to extract methane gas, and now that the gas has come to an end, it will be repurposed in a way that will save the city $1.5 million to $2 million over the next 20 years.
Ameresco has invested $9.2 million in solar panel projects throughout the city including the landfill, the Reilly, Shaughnessy and Pawtucketville Memorial elementary schools, the Butler Middle School and Lowell Memorial Auditorium.
In late 2008, after entertaining proposals from six firms Lynch entered into a 20-year performance contract with Ameresco, aimed at increasing energy efficiency and saving energy costs.
In April 2010, the City Council, in a 7-2 vote with Councilors Bud Caulfield and Rodney Elliott in opposition, approved the borrowing of $21 million to fund a wide range of energy efficiency projects impacting 28 schools and 19 city facilities by replacing roofs, installing new windows, energy-efficient heating systems and instituting conservation measures.
The $21 million loan is paid back by the $1.5 million in annual savings brought forth by the project, resulting in no cost to the city’s taxpayers and leaving the city with sustainable buildings, a much smaller carbon footprint and a 25 percent smaller energy bill.
The project is anticipated to save the city $43 million over the next two decades, as well as the equivalent of 6,158 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is equivalent to taking 1,023 cars off the road for one year.
“We are embarking on renewable energy,” said Lynch. “We are saving money, we are improving our buildings and we are doing things that are making us more environmentally sensitive and environmentally conscious.”
Lynch gave credit to the City Council for their support of the project, as well as members of the city’s Statehouse delegation for supporting the Green Communities Act (Lowell was one of the first communities to be granted the designation), and to U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas for her commitment to sustainability.
Mayor Patrick Murphy, who has championed green projects and initiatives since joining the City Council in January 2010, said the project will leave a “lasting impact,” and credited the Lynch administration with working the Ameresco to “get the best deal possible for the city.”
Looking up at the mountain that is the capped landfill, Murphy stated Lowell will continue to “be a leader in sustainability,” and harkened back to the words of John Winthrop, the state’s first governor who said “we should be a city upon a hill.”
“When we give money to the city of Lowell it is spent and it is spent wisely,” he said. “There is a reason the money comes to Lowell – this City Council and this administration spend it quickly and wisely.”
Jim Walker, Ameresco ‘s director of solar grid-tie projects, agreed with Kevin Murphy’s assessment.
“Lowell is a can-do city with a vision; that is what distinguishes Lowell from many other communities we work with,” he said, adding Lynch, CFO Tom Moses and Chief Procurement Officer Michael Vaughn have worked alongside his company at every step of the way to insure the project’s success. “They are people who are dedicated to the community, who have a vision for the community.”
The city has received several awards for the Ameresco project to date including:
The 2012 New England Region Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Project of the Year from the U.S. Department of Energy.
A $129,000 Green Communities grant, a competitive grant for energy projects in schools.
The 2011 Municipal Leading by Example Award.