My Turn: Large-scale solar moratorium urgently needed

  • JACK FARRELL JACK FARRELL

Published: 7/30/2021 2:34:52 PM

I was heartened to read in the Recorder about the rally planned July 31 at Energy Park in Greenfield (1-4 p.m.) regarding a moratorium on large solar developments. The state needs to stop and re-assess its incentive-based system that encourages developers to race against time to get these arrays approved before the public gets wise.

Clearly, we need alternative forms of energy while also reducing our energy usage. But small towns and cities are not equipped to handle proposals for large-scale solar arrays — these are huge industrial developments that leave residents and town officials flat-footed in their response. The state needs to get back to the drawing board to prevent hundreds of acres of trees from being cleared in towns like Shutesbury.

Selectboards are under pressure to find new sources of revenue. To qualify for the state’s Green Communities program — which pays dividends in the form of grants — towns have to create zoning for solar arrays, which my town of Conway did, designating certain sites in town to promote their development. Per state regulations, no special permit was required, just a site plan review. Unfortunately, that same standard was left in place for solar arrays in other places, like in our neighborhood in the Poland District, where 30 acres of forest were cleared on a parcel between a small swamp, a steep escarpment, and homes along two roads. In essence, a vital wildlife corridor closed off — across Main Poland Road is a huge marsh known as Keyes Swamp.

To town officials, these developments seem like a win-win-win: the town gets money, the landowner gets money, and the developer gets money: everybody’s happy! Except the neighbors who live nearby and who, when they complain, will inevitably be viewed as annoyances by the developer, landowner and more than one or two town officials. Plants and animals don’t do too well, either. In Poland, we have thus far endured more than two years of construction and preparation for this array, which still isn’t online.

I’m hoping the town is getting some decent money out of this; for one, to help pay for the roads damaged by the 18-wheelers delivering the panels and secondly, to lower taxes for my two neighbors whose properties may lose value as a result of the changed landscape outside their kitchen windows.

Here’s the takeaway: don’t sit around waiting for your town boards to look after your interests. They don’t really have the tools to do that, and often, don’t have the courage (our Planning Board is pretty darn good, actually, but it took this first solar development in town to identify and respond to the weak spots -- thankfully, a new bylaw now requires a special permit).

Pay attention. Demand attention. Ask for a town-wide public forum in which the developer has to discuss the plans. This meeting, similar to what is required for a cannabis business, should be held prior to the permitting process so that the developers and town officials can really hear residents’ concerns.

(If you wait until a regular permitting hearing when there is usually a lengthy agenda of unrelated items, you risk being lulled into complacency by the purring tones of the developer’s representative: “No, you won’t be able to see the panels from the street,” and “No, you won’t be able to hear it from the road.” By the time the project is approved, you’re still thinking of questions.)

And that same developer’s rep who seems so sincere won’t tell you or your planning board that a diesel generator will be running non-stop for months on end, polluting your air and sound waves with its unceasing vibration. And hey, guess what? That’s a “common practice” with all of these installations, according to the Nexamp project manager.

Common practice? Whew. We’ve had more than five months of unregulated noise and air pollution — diesel exhaust emanating from our neighborhood industrial site. It’s hard to believe there are no regulations against that, isn’t it? But that seems to be the case. The Conway Fire Department says there is no issue for it to be concerned with and the state Department of Environmental Protection says that no regulatory oversight can kick in for at least a year. (And all the while, the state is incentivizing steps to reduce diesel emissions in other sectors, aware of the health concerns linked to diesel exhaust. Go figure.)

And you only have to read the Boston Globe’s Feb. 4, 2020 story on the Springfield courthouse, where three people have died of ALS (diesel exhaust in the garage is suspected) to understand the potential health effects. The paper noted that “ALS has no known cause, and its roots remain a mystery. However, Marc Weisskopf, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, coauthored a federally funded study in 2018 that linked exposure to diesel exhaust to greater risks of developing ALS.”

It makes you wonder how long it will take for this project to become a net-plus for people and the environment. So far, the forest left alone would have been far better, considering the carbon released in the manufacture of the panels, their transport, the forest-clearing, the number of vehicles on site, the heavy equipment, the extensive road repairs, and a diesel generator that is allowed to run continuously.

Right now, money is in the lead, with the earth trailing. A moratorium only makes sense.

Jack Farrell lives in Conway.




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