Forty-five Acre Solar Farm Pitched For Northeast Amherst

A solar farm under construction in the UK. Photo: Geograph (CC BY_SA 2.0)

On October 27, the Amherst Conservation Commission heard a proposal by ASD Shutesbury MA Solar LLC to build a 45-acre solar array off Shutesbury Road, extending south to the Pelham town line on forested land owned by WD Cowls Inc. Land Company. The array is to be built by AMP Energy of Ontario with a project manager from TRC Companies. The solar farm will generate 11 megawatts of electricity. Many questions were raised regarding the appropriateness of the project by the commission and by members of the public. The hearing will be continued on Wednesday, November 10 at 7 p.m. on Zoom

The idea of cutting down forests for the construction of solar fields is a matter of controversy in the state, including surrounding towns such as Shutesbury and Northfield. In Shutesbury, AMP has proposed five solar farms on 190 total acres of forest also owned by W D Cowls. This proposal has raised considerable pushback from some Shutesbury residents.

At the October 27 meeting, Amherst wetlands administrator Erin Jacques was concerned about the depth of the groundwater in the area slated for an access road to the proposed project. Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the town needs more information on runoff controls and irrigation. Many homes in the area rely on wells for their water, he noted.

Lenore Bryck of Climate Action Now pointed out the importance of forests to the ecosystem and for combating climate change. Cutting down forests disturbs the soil and wildlife, and it destroys trees that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester carbon produced by burning fossil fuels, she said. Michael Lipinski worried about erosion in the area, since the solar farm is slated to be built on a south-facing slope. Leslie Cerier of Shutesbury said that homes near a 22-acre solar farm in her town regularly flood because of runoff from the panels.

The state Department of Environmental Resources says it gives preference to awarding funds from its SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) program to projects that don’t impact farmland or forests. This position is also supported by several local groups such as Save the Pine Barrens, Save Massachusetts Forests, the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, and Sunrise Amherst. Bills H1002 and H912 in the State House of Representatives aim to protect forestland. 

In support of the project, Maria Firstenberg of TRC Companies said she recently released a 400-page report to the Conservation Commission and will work to address some of the additional information requested. The commission expressed a desire to bring in an independent party to assess the project.

W D Cowls President Cinda Jones said her company tries to balance conservation of its forestland with the demand for clean energy. She said it aims to limit its solar farms to 3% of its acres in Western Massachusetts. Jones pointed out that the company has placed over 5,500 acres under permanent conservation status in the towns of Amherst Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham. The most recent conservation project was 2,036 acres in Shutesbury and Pelham. She said “we reserved exclusions from the conservation restriction expressly for solar. The conservation effort was specifically designed to protect the watersheds of the town of Amherst and Boston/the Quabbin.”

To move forward, the project will need a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. The Planning Board will also review the plans. These hearings are expected to take place in December, after the Conservation Commission completes its evaluation. 

A discussion about the topic of cutting down forests to create solar farms may be found in the September 14 Valley Advocate and also in extensive comments posted to the Indy in a letter to the Indy from Eric Bacharach posted on April 17, 2020. 

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