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Bright idea: Solar panels at RR depot paying off for Westport

Updated 9:07 am, Tuesday, July 30, 2013

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  • A Tesla electric car plugged into a charging station at the Saugatuck Train Station. Photo: Cameron Martin / Westport News
    A Tesla electric car plugged into a charging station at the Saugatuck Train Station. Photo: Cameron Martin

 

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Solar panels recently installed on the roof of the Saugatuck Railroad Station are generating revenue, with Westport receiving a quarterly refund of $1,400 on the electricity needed to power the stationhouse, eastbound platform lights and four electric-vehicle charging stations.

In April, Saugatuck became the first solar-powered electric-vehicle charging center on Metro-North Railroad's New Haven line, and town Building Official Steve Smith said the town is pleased with early results from the program.

"This is all new territory, but we're actually generating so much electricity that we got a check back from the power company," Smith said.

The Stratford business, Encon, installed the 27-kilowatt solar array at Saugatuck station last fall. ECI Energy, which has the same owners as Encon, runs and maintains the solar-panel installation and covers its costs. ECI bills the town for the electricity the solar panels produce, a rate that is 35 percent less than if the town bought that electricity from a standard power company, Smith said. No town funds were used for the solar project.

"It's going better than expected on the power purchasing agreement," Smith said.

The solar-charging hub is one of the most ambitious alternative-energy projects in Westport's history. It was conceived about three years ago by Smith, architect Rick Hoag, architect John Rountree and Leo Cirino, president of the Westport Electric Car Club.

Barry Kresch, a member of the Westport Electric Car Club, uses an EV charging station at the station several times a week. Kresch, who works in media research and online marketing, plugs his 2012 Chevy Volt into a charging station when he commutes to New York City.

Kresch puts a "hub club" card -- obtained from the town for free -- into the charging station, and his Volt is fully charged by the time he returns from a day in the city.

"My experience with it is that it's a pleasure," Kresch, 60, said. "I support the promotion of clean energy and creation of awareness of electric vehicles becoming more viable all the time."

Kresch said his Volt retails for about $40,000. Manufacturers such as Tesla offer more expensive options.

While the Saugatuck depot's solar hub accommodates four electric vehicles, it could eventually expand to 20 charging stations. Smith said demand for the "hub club" has been moderate so far. As EV technology advances, the cost of buying or leasing such vehicles is decreasing and more people are buying them.

"That's what's really going to help," Smith said.

Smith said the town is looking into adding a similar solar array system at the Greens Farms train station.

Glenn Cucinell, Solar division manager for Encon, said the company is in discussions with the town.

"It'd be a smaller system, but we are open to doing it," Cucinell said.

Encon is also in discussions with other towns to install solar array systems at train stations, Cucinell said.

Kresch said the expansion of such programs can be beneficial to towns and residents.

"I feel personally that I would like to do my part to reduce carbon emissions and pollution in general, and this is one way that could have a huge impact."