Editorial: Resident concerns about solar projects need to be taken seriously

Published: 8/5/2018 3:06:52 PM

As energy companies and private landowners continue to roll out plans for new solar power systems, many local residents are raising concerns about the impact of these developments on the environment and the character of their communities.

Across western Massachusetts, sizeable tracts of land are being cleared for the installation of solar photovoltaic systems. The rapid development of this renewable energy source is being encouraged and supported by state and federal policies, programs and tax incentives. One such initiative is the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, which provides incentives to promote cost-effective solar development in the state.

Among the biggest projects under review in Hampshire County are in Belchertown where two companies, Syncarpha Community Solar of New York and BlueWave Solar of Boston, each plan to build approximately 50-acre solar arrays near Gulf Road and North Street on land owned by W.D. Cowls Inc. In addition to promoting renewable energy, the projects’ proponents say there will be approximately $1.6 million in payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for the town over 20 years.

Opponents of the 5- and 7.5-megawatt projects say they are concerned about the impact on the environment and quality of life, as well as preserving the area’s scenic beauty. Clearing trees could cause stormwater runoff issues, increase soil erosion, disrupt wildlife and potentially cause groundwater contamination, they argue. A group called Citizens for Responsible Land Use is calling for an assessment of the Belchertown projects by a professional biologist, the creation of new solar zoning bylaws and, at a special Town Meeting Aug. 20, a vote to reverse the town’s PILOT agreement with Syncarpha Solar.

There are similar concerns among residents in Westhampton where that town is reviewing a proposal by CVE North America, a French energy producer that plans to build a nearly 5-megawatt solar facility on about 20 acres off Montague and North roads. The company says it has targeted states like Massachusetts and New York because of their policies promoting renewable energy. The project would require as many as 14 acres of forest to be cleared for the installation of more than 17,000 solar panels. The land is owned by Kurt Meehan of Agawam, who said he had been contacted by about 10 solar companies with proposals.

The project in Westhampton falls outside the town’s solar photovoltaic district and is being reviewed by town officials as some residents warn of negative environmental impacts. Elvira Loncto, of the town’s Conservation Commission, described the proposal as “a huge project in a small town.”

Other solar photovoltaic systems are being eyed or built in areas of Northampton, Deerfield, Williamsburg and Shutesbury, to name some.

Late last year, a new 3.17-megawatt solar array went online atop the closed landfill off Glendale Road in Northampton, a project that is generating power for the city and is expected to save $8 million over the next 20 years while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In another notable project in Amherst, Hampshire College became the first residential college in the country to move to 100 percent solar energy when its 19-acre solar-energy system went fully online.

At the local level, much of the controversy surrounding solar photovoltaic arrays centers on location and whether the benefits of such projects outweigh the costs to the environment and changes to the landscape. Certainly there are financial benefits for cities and towns, their residents and businesses, in discounted electricity rates and tax revenues. And certainly there are impacts to the environment, where some of these projects are being built around wetlands, streams and vernal pools, and along wildlife corridors, for example.

Local officials who are reviewing such projects must balance these competing interests as they make important decisions. In doing so, we urge them to listen closely and take seriously the concerns of residents who, unlike the companies who build and own these solar facilities, must live with them.


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