Residents question second BlueWave solar project in Northfield

BlueWave Solar Project Director Mike Zhe and Field Engineering Co. engineer Richard Riccio, both center, appeared before the Planning Board Thursday afternoon to share information about BlueWave’s proposed solar array on Pine Meadow Road.

BlueWave Solar Project Director Mike Zhe and Field Engineering Co. engineer Richard Riccio, both center, appeared before the Planning Board Thursday afternoon to share information about BlueWave’s proposed solar array on Pine Meadow Road. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-24-2024 1:41 PM

Modified: 05-24-2024 5:32 PM


NORTHFIELD — Residents and Planning Board members volleyed questions at BlueWave Solar representatives about farming and its final plans for another proposed agrivoltaic solar array on Pine Meadow Road.

The solar company, which already was approved in 2021 to construct a three-array, 26,000-panel, 10.9-megawatt project on the same road, is proposing the creation of another array that would allow a variety of farming practices on land owned by residents Thomas and Patricia Shearer through an investment trust. BlueWave must secure site plan review and special permit approval from the Planning Board to move forward.

Agrivoltaic projects allow the land to be used for solar energy production, while still allowing for farmers to use the land for growing crops or grazing for their herds.

A number of residents raised concerns about the prospect of another solar project on Pine Meadow Road — the previously approved arrays have yet to be built, as a lengthy appeal case from 2021 to 2023 held up development — as well as the merits of building solar arrays on prime farmland.

Unlike the previous arrays, BlueWave will be the owner of this land, at least for a period of time, while it searches for a long-term owner that will continue to farm the land. Whether it is a land trust, nonprofit or farmer will have to be determined, but in the meantime, Finicky Farm is slated to manage the farm and the land will be leased to them.

“This project is being viewed differently because of the energy production. … This is, first and foremost, an agriculture project,” said Jesse Robertson-DuBois, the operator of Finicky Farm and a BlueWave employee, who was responding to resident concerns. “The one thing that’s different is energy is produced by some of the structures there.”

The new, 2.5-megawatt array is planned to consist of approximately 4,368 panels on 25 fenced acres. The panels will be mounted on a single-axis tracker system raised at least 10 feet off the ground, along with a concrete equipment pad. There will be narrow-format crop aisles for hay, grazing and specialty crops, as well as 70-foot wide-format crop aisles for commercial farming. There will be no battery storage on site, as BlueWave received a waiver from the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target Program (SMART).

Planning Board member Victoria Luksha said there are still several aspects of the project up in the air, such as a general archaeological study, and the results of those could change the plan, adding “I don’t think we can really start our review” until those are worked out.

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BlueWave representatives and their attorney, Tom Reidy, noted many projects go through minor changes after being approved.

“We feel our application is a complete package and we’d like to give you time to review it,” said Aaron Simms, managing director of solar development.

Several people in attendance questioned the selection of this particular site, especially when the town has an established Solar Overlay District.

Police Chief Jon Hall, speaking as a Pine Meadow Road resident, said he understands companies like BlueWave are developing these sites for a profit and that he’s “not against people making money,” but appealed to the Planning Board to listen to residents’ concerns and take them into consideration.

“That road and that specific area is really special. … We just want the Planning Board to help us have a say in what Northfield wants,” Hall said. “This is our opportunity to put a pause on this situation.”

The company, however, noted the district only accounts for 0.7% of all acreage in Northfield and this site has owners and farmers interested in the project. Plus, interconnection costs will be much lower based on the proximity to the other arrays.

“With any development project, willing landowner engagement is the starting point and necessary for success,” a BlueWave letter to the Planning Board reads. Company representatives reiterated the points at Thursday’s meeting as well. “Designating a given parcel for a particular use does not guarantee that the parcel is either suitable for such use or available for such use.”

With previous discussion about the project being agricultural in nature, Selectboard member Sarah Kerns said “agricultural operational efficiency over pure, open land would be the greatest efficiency.”

“You can argue whether solar can go here or should go here,” said Iain Ward, a consultant for BlueWave. “If you’re going to do solar, this is an innovative design to allow for agriculture as it is currently being done.”

“They’re not currently growing solar panels, so,” Kerns responded back.

With so much information shared with residents and the Planning Board in the nearly three-hour meeting, the Planning Board continued the hearing to June 26 at 5:30 p.m. to give folks a chance to review everything.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.