BlueWave pitches another agrivoltaic solar array in Northfield

A rendering of BlueWave Solar’s agrivoltaic solar array proposed for Pine Meadow Road in Northfield.

A rendering of BlueWave Solar’s agrivoltaic solar array proposed for Pine Meadow Road in Northfield. COURTESY BLUEWAVE SOLAR

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 6:43 PM

Modified: 03-14-2024 7:44 PM


NORTHFIELD — Town residents got one of their first looks at a new proposed solar array on Pine Meadow Road while also getting an opportunity to talk to the developers on Wednesday during a Planning Board information session.

BlueWave Solar is returning to town with a proposal for an agrivoltaic solar array on Pine Meadow Road, which would join the three-array, 26,000-panel, 10.9-megawatt project that was approved in 2021. 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. The land is currently owned by residents Thomas and Patricia Shearer through an investment trust.

The main difference between this array and the three that are already approved are that BlueWave itself will be the owner of the property, at least for a period of time, while the previous three arrays are slated to be constructed on land owned by Hopping Ahead LLC and the L’Etoile family. The company said it will lease the land out to farmers, while also seeking a local land trust to purchase and preserve the land.

“We have worked with the landowner and the farmer to design a site that will have the smallest impact we can on the ongoing agriculture on that site,” said Gabrielle Hayes, a member of BlueWave’s sustainability team. “Not only are we getting the regular benefits of solar … but we’re also protecting the ongoing agricultural productivity of the land by designing it in a way where that can continue for the whole lifetime of the array.”

The project entails the construction of a 2.5-megawatt array with about 4,368 individual panels mounted on a single-axis tracker system at least 10 feet off the ground that will allow the array to follow the sun throughout the day. A concrete equipment pad also will need to be constructed for power inverters, a switchgear, transformers and metering equipment. A fence will enclose approximately 24.8 acres of the property and plant screening is also proposed.

BlueWave’s plan is to have Finicky Farm LLC manage the field, which will have enough space underneath and between solar panels for equipment, and plant historical crops — potatoes, grain corn, peppers and pumpkins — along with some new crops. Animal grazing will also be implemented.

Hayes said there is a lot of ongoing research regarding the efficacy of farming under and around solar panels, but all indications point to little to no loss in productivity.

“There are some outstanding questions, like how the panels will impact fungal disease dynamics, but most vegetable crops cannot utilize 100% of the available sunlight and will only have minor reductions in yield from the shading from a project designed like this,” Hayes explained. “In drought years and arid places productivity often increases.”

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During the question-and-answer period, resident and direct abutter John Buxton said he is concerned about having an “industrial-scale” energy facility right next to his home. He also said solar companies and people interested in solar should look at areas beyond farmland first.

“I don’t think any of us need to be experts. What I’m trying to rely on is simple commonsense and it boils down to this … I think this idea of putting it on prime farmland as option No. 1 seems just crazy,” Buxton said. “I think it’s a fine idea to have solar. … Let’s exhaust every rooftop, parking lot, landfills, highway medians” and other developed land before farmland.

“Would any of you be OK with an industrial-scale power production facility of any kind being within 150 feet of your kids’ bedrooms?” he asked.

BlueWave Project Director Mike Zhe explained during the presentation that studies from the World Health Organization and other agencies have found solar facilities to be safe for plants, animals and people.

“We can confidently say solar arrays are safe,” Zhe said. “They have low levels of electromagnetic radiation, much less than everyday appliances.”

Buxton also asked why the project wasn’t proposed for the town’s established Solar Overlay District, which also came up in the appeal of the three previously approved arrays on Pine Meadow Road.

In that appeal, Franklin County Superior Court Judge Karen Goodwin ruled the town’s bylaws give the Planning Board responsibility for all matters concerning the Solar Overlay District, including site plan review, because Northfield demonstrated the Planning Board’s authority by acting on these applications and it’s logical for the same board to handle all solar projects.

“Although the arrays are proposed for areas outside the district, it makes sense for the same municipal body to have responsibility for all solar panel installations in the town,” Goodwin wrote in 2023, before the appeal was dismissed in September. “The court should and will defer to the town’s reasonable interpretation of its own bylaws.”

While residents got a chance to view the project’s details Wednesday, BlueWave still has many hurdles to get through before the project is a done deal. It will need to pass through the Conservation Commission and the Floodplain Administrator/Town Administrator Andrea Llamas because of the site’s location in the floodplain, as well as a Planning Board public hearing for site plan review and a special permit.

“The hearing is not scheduled based on the volume of material we have to digest,” Planning Board Chair Steve Seredynski. “There’s a lot of moving parts here.”

To view BlueWave’s site plan review and special permit application, as well as documents pertaining to the previously approved arrays, visit the Planning Board’s permitting page at bit.ly/4aaRANR.

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