Solar project in rural Mass. slams into a wall of NIMBY

  • Published on July 25th, 2018

Massachusetts has enacted policies that seek to promote renewable energy projects within the state and in the waters off its shores.  Everybody is in favor of renewable energy, just as long as it has no effect on them personally. Don’t put it in the country, put it near the cities! Don’t mess up my view of the ocean with those horrid wind turbines! The best place for any project like this is always someplace else — anywhere else, in fact.

westhampton, Mass - home of new solar installation, or NIMBY?

In total, Massachusetts wants more than 3 gigawatts of solar power installed within its borders. It is also part of a joint project involving several neighboring states to construct offshore wind farms that will generate an additional 5 gigawatts of electricity.

But how do such grand policy objectives get translated into actual practice? The town of Westhampton, in western Massachusetts, offers some insight into the process down at ground level where the clash of competing interests takes place.

Because of the Bay State’s favorable regulatory policies, French energy company CVE , which has facilities in North America, Chile, and Africa, began looking for locations for solar power plants within the state last year. CVE solar design engineer Matthew Gabor tells the Daily Hampshire Gazette an algorithm CVE solar - chileidentified a parcel of land in Westhampton as being a suitable location. It involves about 21 acres of a 139 acre parcel owned by Kurt Meehan, a semi-retired truck driver who says he bought the land at auction in 1993. Since then, it has been leased primarily to a local dairy farmer who uses it to graze his cows.

Meehan and CVE have already signed a 20 year lease agreement with options to extend it for up to 40 years. The proposed project calls for the installation of 17,280 solar panels, which will produce about 5 megawatts of power once the installation is completed. Construction will take about 6 months, Gabor says. 

So, the construction equipment should be arriving onsite any day now, right? Ummm, not quite. Westhampton already has a designated Solar Photovoltaic District but the Meehan property falls outside of it, so the project needs a special permit from the town. Getting the permit will require approvals from the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and the state Department of Environmental Protection. All of them have strict rules about public hearings and that means anyone with an opinion on the matter gets a chance to be heard. The project will also need electrical and building permits from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

“This is a huge project in a small town,”  says Elvira Loncto of the town’s Conservation Commission. “It’s a beautiful town and there are many that do not want it disturbed. There are those for it and those against. Our job is to deal with the water issues of this project.”

The project will require clear cutting about 13 acres of forest. While Meehan owns the trees and can sell them to a logging company if he wants to, some question the wisdom of cutting down trees — which absorb carbon dioxide — to replace them with solar panels to make electricity that doesn’t come from burning fossil fuels that create carbon emissions. Others just worry the town will lose some of its bucolic appeal when all those trees are gone.

Optics are important, too. The project will require the installation of 5 new utility poles to connect the solar power plant to the electrical grid and another 6 poles to provide power to a nearby maintenance facility. Utility poles in a rural setting? Sacrilege! At a town council meeting on July 24, some town residents said they would prefer the wires to the electrical grid be placed underground, according to the Gazette.

That would solve the unsightly pole issue but create other problems. There is a stream that runs across the property. Putting the wires underground could affect the stream, disrupting sensitive aquatic habitats. That’s where the Conservation Commission comes in. It wants to ensure that the water is not contaminated and that a vernal pool near the brook is not drained.

“All politics is local,” said former House Speaker TIP O’Neill, himself a native of Massachusetts. He was so right. At the Planning Board meeting on July 24, local resident Sarah Mulvehill wanted to know what benefits the potential solar array would have for the town and its residents. “In other towns that have had projects like this, they have received some discount on residential electricity,” she said. “I want to know what can be done to make this worth it for Westhampton.” In other words, what’s in it for me? Politics doesn’t get more local than that. The town will receive about $80,000 a year in income once the project is completed.

Some town residents want the project scaled back in size or worry about erosion once all those trees are cut down. Another asked for a review of the plans by a third party to make sure everything the developers are promising is on the up and up. At public hearings, everyone gets to say their piece. Unless its a pipeline, of course, in which case all such petty concerns are swept aside under the guise of national security.

At the end of the meeting, the Planning Board voted to hire an independent consultant to review the project’s design and agreed to consider the matter further on August 7. In the meantime, the Conservation Commission and the applicants will meet to address issues surrounding wetland protection, including those erosion concerns.

Everybody is in favor of renewable energy, just as long as it has no effect on them personally. Don’t put it in the country, put it near the cities! Don’t mess up my view of the ocean with those horrid wind turbines! The best place for any project like this is always someplace else — anywhere else, in fact. States and national governments may enact broad policies to favor this initiative or that proposal, but none of it happens until the Sarah Mulvehills of the world are satisfied. Somewhere, TIP O’Neill is smiling.

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

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writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.