Guest columnist Jill Buchanan: If a deal looks too good to be true, you can bet it is

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Published: 2/18/2022 6:08:30 PM
Modified: 2/18/2022 6:08:20 PM

In Shutesbury, AMP Power and Cowls Land Co. are dangling the prospect of slightly lower taxes and quick cash in exchange for industrial-scale solar installation. The five proposed solar arrays would replace up to 190 acres of Cowls-owned forest with the largest ground-mounted solar array in the state.

But rather than benefit us financially, this project, if it moves forward, will end up putting the town in a financially vulnerable position, threatening our water supply, and devastating our forests.

Shutesbury is among only 83 Massachusetts towns where more than 60% of residents get their drinking water from wells. The role of our watersheds to health and well-being cannot be overstated. They are essential.

Installing ground-mounted solar arrays dramatically changes water flow, degrading the natural water filtration service that forests provide, and making the area extremely vulnerable to flooding and erosion. Consider that just one acre of forest filters about 500,000 gallons of drinking water per year. Removing 350 acres of forest in our small community will create immeasurable harm to that natural filtration process that we depend on for our drinking water.

Others who have experienced the impact of forest-based, large-scale solar installations can serve as a warning for what can happen here.

In Williamsburg, resident abutters of a 17-acre solar installation were promised that all their water and environmental concerns would be fully addressed as part of the installation process. Instead, the multinational solar owners broke their promises and appear to have cut every cost-saving corner during installation with the result of significant and irreparable damage to their 34-acre property, including a massive gully that drives water and sand into the nearby stream, degrading the water quality throughout the area.

On a 53-acre Carver project in what had been a healthy forested landscape, solar installers mounted 3,500 wood poles treated with toxic copper chromated arsenic directly into the sole source of the area’s drinking water. The local conservation commission has issued a stop work order, but damage has already been done.

These projects, while relatively small, have huge impacts, stripping the land and destroying critical natural systems that maintain our air and water quality, act as buffers to sound and wind, provide essential habitat for countless species, and contribute to quality of life in countless ways.

Imagine the potential damage to 350 acres of Shutesbury land. How concerned can we expect a multinational energy company to be in preventing or cleaning up damage that will undoubtedly occur to our essential water and other natural resources?

Some make the claim that “sacrifices are necessary to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere.” Solar should play an important role in reducing our carbon footprint, but not be at the expense of nature’s single most efficient source of carbon sequestration. Research shows that Massachusetts’ existing forests, if left intact, will sequester 7.231 million tons of carbon over a 14-year period.

Replacing these forests with another tool to do the job does not make sense. This becomes especially clear once you realize that all of the state’s solar goals can be met by installing solar on rooftops, and in existing degraded landscapes such as highway mediums and brownfields.

Shutesbury has strong, carefully considered local bylaws that, under normal circumstances, should protect us from the potential risks posed by these projects.

However, AMP and Cowls are asking the town to create waivers and/or amendments to our bylaws. They have also suggested they would take legal action if we don’t change our bylaws to meet their demands. Why should we “partner” with companies that threaten to sue us if we don’t?

AMP is also proposing to leave the town with the responsibility of maintaining the solar power plants. Though they promise some money for this purpose, the legal liability and the maintenance burden will fall on our town’s skeletal staff and time-strapped volunteer-run committees.

Instead of giving over the best of what Shutesbury has to offer to a couple of profit driven companies, let’s work together with local groups like to protect our precious forests and build community-based solar whose power will go to our shared community and make true clean energy improvements.

Jill Buchanan lives in Shutesbury.

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