EASTHAMPTON — The canopy over the parking lot at River Valley Co-op is helping to generate discounted solar energy for 100 low-income households in western Massachusetts.
Through a partnership between the community-owned food cooperative and Co-op Power, a consumer-owned sustainable energy cooperative headquartered in Florence, qualifying Eversource customers of this energy justice initiative will receive a share of solar energy generated by the panels installed above the store’s parking lot.
When the sun shines on the panels, 50% of the electricity will be generated as solar power from the array over the parking lot and will be available for low-income families, said Rochelle Prunty, general manager of River Valley Co-op.
The solar power will be subtracted from a participant’s monthly Eversource bill, according to Marianne Connor, interim manager of Co-op Power. Participants will also receive a 15% discount on all solar power received through this program, she said.
“Co-op Power is building what we call the ‘energy democracy movement,’” Connor said. “With that movement, there is an effort to have communities determine where they want renewable energy sources and cooperatively own them. And you don’t have to own a rooftop to join the solar revolution.”
When River Valley Co-op sought to open a second grocery store in Easthampton, Prunty said, she reached out to Lynn Benander, president and CEO of Co-op Power, for a more innovative approach to solar energy. She said the solar initiative at the Easthampton store is a continuation of River Valley Co-op’s ongoing efforts to be a green energy leader and fight climate change.
“We were told over and over again that there was no way that we could have a solar array that would allow us to offset the majority — if not all — of the energy use on site in the Northeast,” said Prunty. “We’re committed to being as environmentally responsible as we can to reduce our energy use with the new building, and I figured there have been a lot of changes in solar since the co-op in Northampton was first built.”
In 2008, the food cooperative installed a 34.2-kilowatt solar electricity generation system, complete with 165 solar panels at its Northampton store.
In working with Co-op Power and engineers from Solar Design Associates (a solar energy company in Harvard whose portfolio includes the White House while President Jimmy Carter was in office), a solar array was installed — a 178-kilowatt solar electricity generation system with 2,294 solar panels — between the Easthampton 22,000 square-foot store’s roof and parking lot canopy.
The annual electricity consumption intensity for the average-sized grocery store of 46,000 square-feet is 51 kilowatt hours per square foot, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The annual electricity consumed for the average store is 2,346,000 kilowatt hours per year.
The panels will generate a little less than 1-megawatt of electric power over the course of one year, according to Prunty.
“There’s a cookie-cutter way this could have been done and would have provided results, but this innovative approach maximized solar on the site to offset all of River Valley Co-op’s energy usage,” Benander said.
“It’s a pretty historic accomplishment and brings energy savings to low-income communities as part of our work for energy justice,” she said, noting that the project also provides good jobs for local green energy installers.
“I’m very excited about how it turned out,” Benander added. “It’s a great addition to the region and I love the way the architects built the solar panels in, harmonizing with the design of the store. It’s not just an eyesore add-on.”
As part of the project, Benander said Co-op Power hired Greenfield-based PV Squared, a worker-owned solar energy cooperative, and brought on EOS, a New Jersey-based energy storage company that uses zinc-ion technology for its solar batteries rather than lithium-ion.
As far as Co-op Power’s efforts in climate and energy justice, Benander said through her national experience in working with people of color and low-income communities, she became profoundly aware of the injustice those communities face.
“It’s daunting. They have very little say on what happens in their communities and struggle with predatory practices with utility companies,” Benander said. “Their neighborhoods often can’t handle solar because their infrastructure is so inferior to what exists in other places as their poles and wires are not maintained. This justice initiative looks at how we can reduce energy costs, promote energy ownership and give people a voice in their energy system.”
To be eligible for the program, applicants must reside in western Massachusetts and have the low-income (R2) electric rate on their Eversource bill or qualify for MassHealth, SNAP, LIHEAP or other social programs. Applicants may also qualify for the program if they reside in an environmental justice neighborhood that qualifies for this program.
Environmental justice communities are defined by a state policy as those “most at risk of being unaware of or unable to participate in environmental decision-making or those most unable able to gain access to state environmental resources.” Qualifying zip codes in those neighborhoods are 01103, 01105, 01107 and 01109.
For those unsure if they qualify, more information is available online at cooppower.coop/community-solar-signup. For more information on community solar, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 413-772-8898, ext. 2.
Emily Thurlow can be reached at email@example.com.