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Pittsfield Finance OKs TIF, GE Funds for Solar Masonry Company
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:36AM / Saturday, May 07, 2022
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A company that combines solar panels with masonry blocks to make urban renewable energy is being welcomed to the city with subsidized taxes and economic development funding.
 
On Thursday, the Finance Committee supported a five-year tax increment financing agreement for SolaBlock Inc. The Community and Economic Development Committee also supported allocating $125,000 from the Pittsfield Economic Development (GE) Fund for the company.
 
It will go to the City Council for final approval at next week's meeting.
 
"SolaBlock is an innovative clean energy company that I've been working with for the past two or three years now, trying to bring their operations to Pittsfield, I'm very excited that they're planning to come here," Pittsfield's Business Development Manager Michael Coakley said.  
 
"SolaBlock combines a solar panel masonry block and then creates a solar wall which is very innovative, it's the only one in the country, in the world for that matter, they plan to create a minimum of 17 full-time clean energy manufacturing jobs, with salaries ranging from $37,000 to $55,000, they plan to lease the recently vacated 10,000 square-foot building over at 15 Hubbard Avenue, which was the Modern Mold building."
 
SolaBlock will be partnering with several city companies including LTI Smartglass Inc. and Cantarella & Son Inc. masonry. It is also looking into partnerships with Taconic High School, Berkshire Community College, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
 
"I think this is really the type of business that we want to attract and bring into Pittsfield and we are very excited to come here," Coakley said.
 
The five-year TIF starts with 100 percent forgiveness the first year and then goes down in 20 percent increments each year. It has an estimated value of about $36,000 and the company is expected to pay out the equivalent amount over the five years.
 
Because the SolaBlock will be leasing space, there is not a TIF on the property at this point, Coakley said, but the total investments will be about $440,000, and that includes the move, build-out of the space, and the equipment costing about $300,000.
 
That is what the personal property tax is being proposed on.
 
"They're not a registered manufacturing company with Massachusetts yet, but at a certain point they will become that in another year or two or three years, there are certain steps that they will need to take and some milestones that they will need to make to become a registered manufacturer," Coakley explained.
 
"Once they do become a registered manufacturer, they no longer have to take personal property tax so the TIF will be null and void at that point."
 
For the $125,000 in economic development funding, $75,000 will be disbursed after SolaBlock obtains Underwriter Laboratories Certification and the company occupies its facility by Dec. 31.
 
The $50,000 balance will be disbursed six months after the company documents eight full-time employees with minimum salaries of $37,500 by Dec. 31, 2023.
 
Coakley said this is "basically a forgivable loan."
 
In addition, the Massachusetts Economic Assistance Coordinating Council approved $170,000 in state tax incentives for the company in April. Both the TIF and incentive are part of the state Economic Development Incentive Program.
 
SolaBlock has already raised $629,000, received about a quarter-million-dollar Massachusetts clean energy grant, and is expected to raise an additional 2 1/2 million dollars later this year, Coakley reported.
 
CEO Eric Planey went over the company's product, initiative, business model, workforce development, and regional rollout.
 
"[Coakley] really hit the nail on the head when he said, this is really about a product that integrates a solar panel into a concrete masonry block, so then we're taking what we call the wasted space, commercial buildings and their sidewalls which are not doing anything in order to make the building either a net-zero building, efficient, or generating green power or generating resiliency power," Planey said.
 
"So one statistic that is really important that you're going to hear more and more, 40 percent of global greenhouse emissions actually come from buildings, according to the World Green Building Council, and that's a combination of the carbon intensity to make products in the materials that go into the buildings that the operation and the buildings themselves."
 
In this case, net-zero means the building's ability to not generate positive carbon into the atmosphere during its life.
 
Planey said the company has had some initial verification that SolaBlock's product can last up to 40 years and the product takes about 3 1/2 years of carbon emissions to make.
 
The SolaBlock solar management unit is centered on the relationship between the block and its photovoltaics, which convert light to electricity, he said, as there is a symbiotic relationship between the two that helps protect it and insulate it through weather conditions, enabling it to last longer and operate more efficiently.
 
The company started its journey to UL certification in 2019 and believes it should be on the path to getting certified this year after recently completing a critical wet/dry test, which involves putting it in a pool of water and running 4,000 volts through it to make sure that there was no leakage of electricity.
 
The company is now in final long chamber testing.
 
"Twenty of our blocks, which is about 18 1/2 square feet, mitigate the carbon emissions from a single passenger vehicle per year," Planey said. "Two hundred and forty-eight of our SMUs, which is about 220 square feet, mitigate enough carbon to take the car off the road entirely."
 
Currently, SolaBlock is also working on an exercise with the Berkshire Athenaeum to satisfy net-zero building mandates and has presented the library with three concepts.
 
"I want to thank you for your excellent, detailed presentation," Ward 4 Councilor James Conant said. "You answered all our questions. Your technical expertise is obviously outstanding and this type of entrepreneurship is exactly what Pittsfield's future is all about and you have my total support."
 
Though he had questions, Ward 2 Councilor Charles Kronick also commended the company for the quality of its presentation.
 
Councilor at Large Earl Persip III explained that he wants to make sure the endeavor will be successful with the use of the city's economic development funds.
 
"These funds, GE economic funds are an asset to the city of Pittsfield, and people like clench their fists when it comes to these funds," he said.
 
"I'm not necessarily one of those people, but we want to make sure this build is successful, so that's where my questions are coming from, I want to kind of understand what you guys are doing in your big picture because we really don't see too many startups. It's already someone who's kind of established usually, so that's new for me."
 
Both the TIF and the economic development fund allocation were approved unanimously.
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