LETTER: CONCERNS RAISED ABOUT LARGE GROUND-MOUNTED SOLAR INSTALLATION PROPOSED FOR NORTH AMHERST

Solar Farm. Photo:commons.wikimedia.org.

Some of you may already know about this, and for some of you, it may be the first time you are hearing about this. The Cowls Company is hoping to develop a 55-acre ground-mounted solar installation in the woods on the south side of Shutesbury Road.  The project, if it were to come to fruition, has the potential to deforest dozens more forest acreage beyond the 55-acre commercial scale solar installation.    

The deforestation of wilderness area has serious implications to wildlife habitats and other natural resources and is problematic because of the important water management, cooling, and climate benefits that trees provide. The University of Massachusetts news office published an article on January 11, 2017 with the headline, “Northeast U.S. Temperatures are Decades Ahead of Global Average”. 

 The article offers conclusions from a study by researchers at UMass’ Northeast Climate Science Center that states, “the fastest warming region in the contiguous U.S. is the Northeast, which is projected to warm 3 degrees Celsius when global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius”.

The developer is in the early planning stages of the proposed project.  During this early stage, Cowls must defend a wetlands study that was done by a consultant hired by the developer in late 2019.   The Town, under the jurisdiction of the Amherst Conservation Commission, is required to do its own wetlands study.  The Town’s Wetland’s Administrator supervised the completion of its own study, which was done within the last month.  The two studies will be compared at the next meeting of the Conservation Commission, which will be open to the public, presumably using software like Zoom

It appears as though the Amherst Conservation Commission will hold its meeting on April 22.   The wetlands surveys were the sole agenda item for the meeting originally scheduled on April 8 and moved to April 22:  “Abbreviated Notice of Resource Area Delineation – Confirm whether resource area boundaries depicted on the submitted plans are accurate under the MA Wetlands Protection Act and Town of Amherst Wetlands Protection Bylaw Regulations at Shutesbury Road (Map 9B, Parcel 11 & 12; Map 9D, Parcel 27).”  The meeting will start at 7:00 and will address the wetlands demarcation beginning at 7:30 or thereabouts.  Here are some resources that you might find useful:

The wetland’s survey commissioned by the Town of Amherst, text and map, can be found here and here.

The Town of Amherst is at a crossroads that will weigh the benefits of small and large-scale solar installations at the expense of dwindling natural resources.  Which way will we turn?

Eric Bachach

Eric Bachrach, a resident of Amherst since 1981, spent the largest part of his working life as the founding executive director of the Community Music School of Springfield, from 1983 through 2010.  He’s an avid violinist and gardener.

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10 thoughts on “LETTER: CONCERNS RAISED ABOUT LARGE GROUND-MOUNTED SOLAR INSTALLATION PROPOSED FOR NORTH AMHERST

  1. I invite anyone who is concerned about a solar farm in their backyard to come take a look at the Sunderland Road solar farm in my backyard! Unfortunately I was recovering from surgery at the time of the ZBA hearing and could not discern from the plans how intrusive this project turned out. The afternoon sun reflects of the glass surfaces, shining into my computer screen, looking like sunset in the gulf of Mexico. I only asked the developer over the last 18 months for a few screening evergreens in my backyard but Nexamp refuses. (I am receiving credits worth 15% off the production of my electricity from this project on my Eversource bill)

  2. Just when I thought perhaps this health crisis and environmental opportunities would put us all on the same page with respect to conservation ethics and the need to secure our town’s economic and environmental resilience, I’m disillusioned to read this inaccurate story targeting Cowls.

    The old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a tree hugger and a developer? Answer: The tree hugger already has a house in the woods.”

    So it goes … in 1984 Cowls sold a house lot on Shutesbury Road to newcomers Renee Moss and violinist/ Amherst Indy Contributor Eric Bachrach. They built a big beautiful house in the woods, and serially since then, they have tried to prevent anyone else from doing anything around where they chose to live.

    Today The Amherst Indy published a letter by Eric Bachrach protesting a WD Cowls lease for solar energy on backland, that according to Amherst’s Build-Out Analysis for Future Growth, could potentially be sold as a large residential subdivision.

    Cowls’ land company is alternatively hoping that the applicant solar energy firm will be able to utilize a tiny percentage of Cowls’ area forests for a couple decades to create local renewable power; deliver a huge annual Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) payment to the Town of Amherst; and lower energy costs for neighbors who choose to participate in Community Solar.

    Bachrach, who with his residential neighbors bought and cleared dozens of acres of Cowls forests to build their houses (far out of sight of this proposed solar farm) is accusing Cowls of “deforestation” at a time when we’re about to simultaneously host 55 acres of renewable solar energy and add 2,000 adjacent acres to our existing 5,486 acre Conservation Restriction. At a time we just sold the Town of Amherst about 50 acres for conservation purposes upon their request.

    For hundreds of years Cowls has invested in a balance between sustainable forestry, land conservation, and development. We’ve done the math and are confident this is the right thing to do environmentally.

    Trading trees for solar panels mounted on posts above a meadow of grassland is many times more beneficial to the environment on a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) sequestration/offset basis. On average one acre of New England forest each year absorbs 30,340 pounds of CO2 while an acre of solar farm offsets 256,230 pounds.

    Cowls’ primary business will always be sustainable forestry, but we intend to do our part to build a resilient future and we will invest in solar energy as well.

    At this perilous time, please support our efforts to fortify conservation ethics and economic resiliency.

    Thank you
    Cinda Jones
    cjones@cowls.com

    Wrong info in this article, paragraph by paragraph for corrections please (sorry for redundancy – wrong info is redundnatly use in article):
    – The entity name is WD Cowls Inc., of North Amherst.
    – Cowls (land company) owns the land. Is not the developer. We sold the author land that he cleared for a house adjacent to the greater parcel. We are leasing land not visible from author’s ex wife’s house for solar use.
    – Again, note Cowls is not the applicant. Not the developer.
    – Again, note, Cowls is the landlord of a solar green energy developer who wants to turn 55 acres of forests to a meadow, over which to install solar panels on posts.
    – The cutting will be limited to this project size. Not bigger
    – This solar site is surrounded by thousands of acres of protected forest land of Cowls. This is not deforestation.
    – This is not wildnerss land. This is industrial forest land and has been sustainably harvested and had house lots sold for centuries.
    – Cowls isn’t defending or proposing any studies, we simply hosting a tenant.

  3. It is important to note that WD Cowls land is privately-owned working forest – similar to a farmer’s corn field – not public forest or wilderness.

    The Covid19 shutdown has given me the opportunity to explore the 4000+ acre WD Cowls’ “Paul Jones Working Forest”, where a conservation easement was recently sold. In addition to being a beautiful place to hike, this is one of the best-managed woodlots I have seen. The inventory of sizeable hardwood is substantial; markedly better than most privately-held woodlots in New England. By planning for the future rather than high-grading woodlots for short-term profit, Cowls has created a substantial asset that should be productive long into the future; providing profits for the owners, yes, but also jobs and taxes for the local economy.

  4. My primary comment addresses the hostile and attacking nature of Cinda’s response.
    I am a Shutesbury Road abutter on the land, and have a particular stake for that reason, as well as others, and am certainly interested in learning more. Many of the points made by Cinda in her response are well-made, and give me pause to think, but that tone gives me even more, or at least as much, pause. Cinda’s response , good points and all, also very much sounds like the frustrated groans of the world-weary land developer (yes, I know Cowls is not the developer) who has to deal with the idiot, and, in this case, tree hugging, neighbor, abutter, squatter, or land owner who will not get out of their way, and the way of progress, as the developer would have us believe. I’ll make up my mind when I have as much information as I need in order to do so. In the meantime, I’m always wary of people who sell cars for a living. They always make it sound like I’m getting an incredible deal.

  5. I am interested in hearing more about the science. Forest land and pastures sequester large amounts of carbon in their soils when undisturbed. Plowing fields releases carbon into the atmosphere. Young trees absorb more carbon than older trees which is why New England’s relatively young forests absorb so much carbon every spring. So I am wondering what the full effect of this proposal will be and adding that information into the discussion.

  6. There are plenty of studies out there that do the “tree math”. Here’s one:
    https://newenglandcleanenergy.com/energymiser/2015/09/24/tree-math-2-solar-vs-trees-whats-the-carbon-trade-off/
    A Google search for trees vs.solar will produce many others. The simplistic conclusion is that solar provides a greater benefit than an equivalent area of forest. That is, carbon offsets from solar are likely to exceed carbon sequestration from trees for a similar sized area by a factor of 8x-10x. But experts warn against framing the question as either or. Much depends on the details, e.g. kind of solar, age and density of trees, drainage, location, etc. And here’s an informative article from 2018 discussing the tradeoffs in another proposed Cowls solar project. https://www.gazettenet.com/which-to-choose-forests-or-solar-20732082

    Art Keene

  7. I reviewed the “math” at the website Art shared. One of the posts there hints at what appears to be an even more fundamental consideration: the ratio of the energy returned over the energy input (ERoEI) for the entire lifecycle of the device. If the ERoEI is less than 1, the device is not an energy source, but an energy sink. Unfortunately, the ERoEI appears* to be less than 1 for the type of mono-crystalline silicon photovoltaic panels available today, calling into question the sustainability of their large-scale use (there may still be good reasons for their use at remote sites which cannot be easily connected with the electrical grid).

    Rob

    *This 2016 article

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516301379

    surveys studies of photovoltaic panel ERoEI carried out by various authors.

    It’s most salient conclusions are summarized here:

    Table 4. Summary of the components of the total energy investments

    Principal energy investments kW he/m²
    Cumulative energy demand (CED) for the production of the PV-system 1300
    Integration of the intermittent PV-electricity in the grid and buffering 349
    Energy invested for the labour 505
    Energy embodied for faulty equipment 90
    Energy invested necessary for the capital 420
    Total 2664

    7. Conclusion and policy implications

    The calculated value for ERoEI is dimensionless, constituting the energy return (2203 kW he/m2) divided by the energy invested (2664 kW he/m2) – a ratio of 0.82. It is estimated that these numbers could have an error of ±15%, so that, despite a string of optimistic choices resulting in low values of energy investments, the ERoEI is significantly below 1. In other words, an electrical supply system based on today’s PV technologies cannot be termed an energy source, but rather a non-sustainable energy sink or a non-sustainable NET ENERGY LOSS. The methodology recommended by the expert working group of the IEA appears to yield EROI levels which lie between 5 and 6, (see Section 4.1), but which are really not meaningful for determining the efficiency, sustainability and affordability of an energy source. The main conclusions to be drawn are:

    • The result of rigorously calculating the “extended ERoEI” for regions of moderate insolation levels as experienced in Switzerland and Germany proves to be very revealing. It indicates that, at least at today’s state of development, the PV technology cannot offer an energy source but a NET ENERGY LOSS, since its ERoEIEXT is not only very far from the minimum value of 5 for sustainability suggested by Murphy and Hall (2011), but is less than 1.

    • Our advanced societies can only continue to develop if a surplus of energy is available, but it has become clear that photovoltaic energy at least will not help in any way to replace the fossil fuel. On the contrary we find ourselves suffering increased dependence on fossil energy. Even if we were to select, or be forced to live in a simpler, less rapidly expanding economic environment, photovoltaic technology would not be a wise choice for helping to deliver affordable, environmentally favourable and reliable electricity regions of low, or even moderate insolation, since it involves an extremely high expenditure of material, human and capital resources.

    • Research and development should however, be continued in order in future to have more efficient conversion from sunlight to electricity and a cheaper, more reliable PV-technology offering increased efficiency and a longer, failure-free lifetime. The market will then develop naturally.

  8. `Williamsburg MA is only one of several examples of solar design and construction gone very wrong. The catastrophic damage to adjacent wetlands and streams is documented, and has led the Att. Gen. to sue the developers. Many others (Orange, Ware) show erosions and sedimentation, and Belchertown is under threat from another monstrosity. After two years of debate and research, and a full thirteen plan revisions, residents and Town officials were convinced that there were grave risks of building on steep forested slopes in a flood zone, where not only wetlands and fisheries would be impacted, but drinking water and public safety. When the permit was denied, as threatened, the developer filed a complaint in Superior Court. This adds a monetary burden to the time spent on the matter, to the exclusion of nearly all else. The landowner and the developer (Cowls and Blue Wave, respectively) pushed for this oversize and under designed facility using the familiar rhetoric about environmentalism and the need for renewable energy. The DEP, as part of the appeal process, evaluated the project and promptly denied it. Recommendations have still not been acted upon, and any new proposal will have to come back to the town.
    In the meantime, the State is still tinkering with incentives for solar construction, without offering any real guidelines for siting, scale, design or construction. Solar panels are fine – on roofs and parking lots. Unlike trees, however, they do not hold soil, produce oxygen, or control temperatures, nor do they reduce atmospheric carbon levels over many decades. The drastic land use changes required – the removal of roots and canopy, as well as native ground cover, and the recontouring of stable soils utilized in construction, does real harm.
    Oversized facilities are overwhelming connectivity capacity, and causing brown outs and surges. Town governments, residents and even consulting engineering firms cannot be expected to evaluate the complex design standards. Developers count on this. By the time the project is completed and sold, and the no trespassing signs adorn the fences, it is too late.
    By incentivizing the massive arrays, the State has put us in jeopardy. Citizens do not receive power, or towns promised payments. In Belchertown, the disputed project is a designated Sensitive Site, with none of the required safeguards in place. Over time, the meadow grass plantings incrementally morphed into ponds, culminating in a monstrous million gallon pond held back by a rudimentary earthen structure, perched on an eroding cliff over a home. During review, the DEP concurred that the Cowls/Blue Wave proposal could not be approved as submitted. Yet the landowner and developer and their attorneys still aggressively push the plan. Ms Jones rejected a conservation grant of one and a half million for this land, five hundred acres which are unsuitable for development. Having benefitted by more than fifteen million in conservation deals in the past five years, coming from government and private funds, it seems the mega-profits from mega-facilities are too big to resist, no matter the real cost.
    To compare a homeowner clearing enough trees to build a home with a project which is 1,000 foot long, and 8 stories high, is fantastic. And telling. Keep your fields, woods and wetlands for a healthier future. Fight these projects tooth and nail.
    And please – write to doer.smart@mass.gov to stop the incentives.

  9. It’s good that Judith Mann is keeping this important discussion going, especially with respect to the manner in which the Mass DoER incentives are distorting prudent environmental decision making (to politely understate the obvious).

    In the same spirit, the ERoEI analysis to which I pointed seems to have been rebutted — at least in part — by a subsequent paper

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421516307066

    in the same journal.

    The jury may still be out on the question of whether large-scale solar PV projects at the latitude — and typical cloud-cover — of New England are a net-energy source or sink, i.e. a benefit or a burden. But suppose we grant the premise that, when properly sited, large-scale solar PV projects are a benefit, how might we accomplish the seemingly irreconcilable goals articulated by Ms. Jones and Ms. Mann? Let me sketch a potential (if slightly more complex) alternative mechanism:

    Rather than the DoER giving incentives for developing farm/forest-land for PV, instead incentivize the transfer of development rights between commercial property owners (on whose roofs and parking lots PV arrays could be sited) and farm/forest-landowners; the development rights on the farm/forest-land could be further transferred to non-profit conservation trusts, garnering additional local, state and federal tax benefits.

    This is merely a sketch, and “the doctor is in the details” which should be worked out by all the public and private stakeholders, but this could be a prescription for a better path forward.

    — Rob Kusner

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