EDITORIAL: On solar, deliberate pace would be best

We applaud the Light Commission and the School Committee for beginning discussions about placing solar panel arrays on school buildings in town. But we want to add a word of caution about the developing technology for storage.

Municipal Light General Manager Joe Kowalik says adding lithium-ion storage batteries increases the value of solar. But it also increases the risk.

In a 2023 study, the NTSB issued warnings to first responders on how to safely handle lithium-ion battery fires. We believe the Fire Department should be part of the discussion.

Kowalik agrees that more training and research is needed. He met recently with the School Committee’s Facilities Subcommittee to talk about placing solar arrays on the five public school roofs. A sixth would be proposed for the Charter School.

The school department is one of the local utility’s largest customers for power. The solar arrays would provide 2 1/2% of the school department’s annual energy needs. New federal tax credits of between 30% to 40% have made solar more financially attractive, but there are lingering questions about whether 2 1/2% yield of power is worth $1 million per array investment.

The Municipal Light Department got ahead of the curve with the construction of the new Brown School. The Brown School already has conduits in the parking lot to accommodate batteries, and utility management met with the building committee and architects to make sure the roof would support a solar array. Unfortunately, the roof on the new school leaks and will need to be repaired before moving forward with the plan.

In addition to the Brown School, the Municipal Light Department is also investigating battery placements at the high school and Village School. In addition to the community benefit, Kowalik believes the schools will reap non-economic benefits from solar power at schools by making it part of the STEM curriculum, and we agree. But adding batteries to the mix prompts us to urge the town to go slowly and engage appropriate stakeholders.

Marbleheaders already get their power from a diverse portfolio. The Municipal Light Department has ownership in the remaining two nuclear power plants in the region and the newly opened solar power farm in Ludlow, Massachusetts. It also purchases power from Quebec Hydro Electric and wind power from the Berkshires. There are some fossil fuels in the mix.

The state has mandated that 50% of power be generated carbon free by 2030. In Marblehead, 44% carbon-free power is already going to local homes and businesses.

We are impressed by that number and hope that, after careful consideration and further coordination with the Fire Department, local solar can be added to the mix.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

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