Webinar aims for potential middle way on solar projects 

  • View of an approximately 30-acre solar farm north of Pulpit Hill Road in Amherst on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2021 7:02:38 AM
Modified: 12/7/2021 7:02:10 AM

SHUTESBURY — In Shutesbury, up to 190 acres of forested land could be used for five solar projects that would generate 45 megawatts of power. In Amherst, 45 acres of wooded property could make way for an 11-megawatt project.

These proposed developments, both by Amp Energy of Ontario, Canada, are causing angst for some residents, both due to the size of the proposals and the potential loss of habitat.

On Sunday, a free webinar, titled “Trees & Solar: We Need Both,” will be held at 7:15 p.m. focused on how community solar can meet some of the demand for green energy.

Sponsored by Smart Solar Shutesbury, panelists will include Meg Sheehan, an environmental attorney, William R. Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University, Marianne Connor, interim manager for Solar for All co-op power, and Emily Cohen, a Williamsburg resident and abutter to a large-scale solar project in which the state attorney general’s office agreed to a $1.1 million penalty for the developer disregarding pollution control requirements.

Those interested in participating in the webinar should register at https://tinyurl.com/solarforum1212.

Smart Solar Shutesbury is opposing the efforts of W.D. Cowls Inc. and AMP to move forward with the projects, instead advocating for what it calls “community driven municipal solar projects” in places such as rooftops and already cleared land, like the area behind Town Hall. The group’s argument is those could generate renewable energy and lower electricity bills for Shutesbury residents without sacrificing woodland.

Unlike Shutesbury, which already has solar bylaws in place to guide development, Amherst is in the midst of contemplating the creation of a temporary moratorium on large-scale, ground-mounted solar. Known as Article 16, District 2 Councilors Pat De Angelis and Lynn Griesemer say the proposal is not designed to stop clear-cutting, but to make sure that a bylaw can be developed by Planning Department staff by May 2023.

The town’s Planning Board is now reviewing the moratorium and will make a recommendation to the Town Council, possibly at its Dec. 15 meeting. At a Dec. 1 Planning Board meeting, Griesemer said other towns have passed bylaws, and Amherst, too, needs to be smart in how it proceeds.

De Angelis said Amherst needs time to appropriately regulate solar projects, with standards for approval and placement, along with ongoing monitoring and eventual removal.

Without guidelines, De Angelis said there could be environmental failures like the one in Williamsburg without a bylaw that would address mitigation, fences and size.

“We can do better by giving ourselves the time we need to create regulations that will provide us the electricity we need and the ecological benefits we require to lead healthy, balanced lives,” De Angelis said.

Amherst Planning Director Christine Brestrup said Amherst doesn’t have specific standards, unlike Belchertown, as an example, which puts a cap on the size of solar projects and how much land can be cleared. “We don’t have specific criteria and standards for solar arrays,” Brestrup said.

Laura Draucker, who has chaired Amherst’s Energy and Climate Action Committee, said developing a strong bylaw can help the town achieve its goals, including carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and that some forest land and some agricultural land will have to be converted to solar.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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