Background

The proposed solar array project in Shutesbury is one of the largest in the state to date and provides a glimpse into early stages of potentially explosive and haphazard growth of large-scale solar in MA in response to state mandates to dramatically increase use of clean energy in the coming decades.


Installing large solar arrays on forested land is at best a misguided attempt to reach clean energy goals and at worst an exploitive use of ratepayer funds to profit a few while causing great damage to our community, our essential watershed, and its essential forest ecosystems.


History

In January 2020 the multinational solar conglomerate AMP Energy and the state’s largest landowner, Cowls Lumber, submitted to the Shutesbury Conservation Commission a proposal to build large-scale solar arrays.

Their current proposal targets 360 acres of forests on Montague Road, Carver Road, Pratt Corner East, Pratt Corner West, Pratt Corner South and Leverett Road West to be clear-cut for solar installation.


AMP needs the town to ‘collaborate’ on this project so that it can reap millions of dollars in ratepayer-funded incentive funds from the state’s SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) program.


The SMART program is not intended for commercial developers like AMP but instead was designed to benefit municipalities. In fact, Shutesbury’s forests should not qualify for SMART funding because the land is more than 50% “BioMap2” priority/core habitat and critical natural landscape.


But the company is exploiting an outdated local zoning law exemption to push the project forward. Local zoning laws help communities protect inhabitants from exploitation. However, in 1985- before there ever was such a thing as industrial solar- a state-level exemption was introduced stating that local bylaws can’t prohibit solar installations. Though this exemption was intended to support individual-scale solar projects, multinational solar companies like AMP are now taking advantage of this loophole for their profit.

The Project Development Process

Step 1: The first stage of projects like this is for the Developer (in this case Cowls and AMP) to submit ANRADS (Abbreviated Notice of Resource Area Delineation) to determine wetland boundaries on a parcel of land. As of December, 2021, four of the proposed sites have had ANRADS submitted and accepted as accurate by the Town’s conservation commission. ANRADs have not yet been submitted for the Carver Road and Montague Road sites.


Step 2: Once ANRADS are accepted, the developer files a Notice Of Intent—a document describing their proposed building plan—to the planning board. There are two stages with Notice of Intent. First stage is for the planning board to vote whether to approve the project on technical grounds. If the project is approved, the next stage would be for Conservation Commission to vote on whether to grant the permit to build based on zoning bylaws. In order to build they would need two types of permits- a special permit and a variance.


As concerned citizens, we must be involved at every stage of this process to ensure that the proper steps are being taken to protect our safety and health.


Legal Issues

The Massachusetts Zoning Enabling Act, (Chapter 40A, Section 3, paragraph 9) contains a provision that solar developers are using to intimidate municipalities into approving large solar projects. This section of the law from the 1990s was never intended to apply to the large industrial scale generating stations or battery storage facilities that are being forced on communities. Section 3 states: “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit or unreasonably regulate the installation of solar energy systems or the building of structures that facilitate the collection of solar energy, except where necessary to protect the public health, safety or welfare.”

It's up to us to insist that these large-scale installations that destroy hundreds of acres of critical habitat and degrade our water quality will harm public health, safety and welfare.

The Department of Energy Resources itself states that "Where a solar facility is sited, as well as placement on the site once selected, is an important consideration, particularly in regard to large-scale ground mounted facilities. [The Department of Energy Resources] DOER strongly discourages locations that result in significant loss of land and natural resources, including farm and forest land, and encourages rooftop siting, as well as locations in industrial and commercial districts, or on vacant, disturbed land. Significant tree cutting is problematic because of the important water management, cooling, and climate benefits trees provide]"

For a deeper dive into legal issues surrounding this issue, please see this page from the Save the Pine Barrens web site, an organization that is fighting for the rights of Southeastern MA communities who have already experienced devastating effects of industrial solar installations..

The Concerns

Water quality:

Construction of solar panels impacts water quality, as the surface water and groundwater close to construction site can become polluted with various materials used during construction work. Some examples of pollutants include, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), paints, glues, diesel, oils, other toxic chemicals, and cement. Because plants are not present to filter out the toxic chemicals from construction, the groundwater supply may become contaminated and can harm human health if ingested.

Clearcutting trees has a devastating effect on local water processes. Left intact, trees are natural barriers and sinks for excess water, and soften the impact of flooding. They help trap and retain water in the topsoil and filter it slowly into the ground aquifer. Converting forested land to massive industrial ground-mounted solar means clear-cutting trees, stripping topsoil and vegetation. water does not filter into the aquifer, but rather moves quickly across the ground surface into nearby streams. This causes the topsoil and all its nutrients to move with the water, which has significant harmful effects. The remaining soil is depleted of nutrients and vulnerable to erosion. This in turn significantly reduces water quality throughout the watershed.

Climate:

Clearcutting increases CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Trees function as carbon sinks, meaning they take up carbon dioxide and incorporate it in their woody biomass.


Contrary to claims that clearcutting forests for solar installations results in net reductions in atmospheric CO2, more accurate analyses by Clark University and Harvard Forest Research Center find that the loss in carbon sequestration functionality from clearcutting for solar arrays results in a net increase in atmospheric CO2.

Deforestation negates one of the best tools we have for drawing carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere: forest carbon sequestration.


Financial Risk:

Companies like AMP make the deal sound like a no-brainer: They will install ‘clean energy’ and the town gets some annual fee that can be used as the town sees fit. But as is the case most of the time, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.


The reality is that any fee would be gobbled up to maintain the massive projects, which the Town would be required to manage despite the fact that it has no experience in doing so. This would be an enormous burden on an already-strapped administrative system.


Communities that have already experienced large-scale solar installations by multinational corporations serve as powerful examples of what can happen here.


In in Southeastern MA industrial solar has severely polluted groundwater, and “stripped off carbon sequestering soil and forests that took 11,000 years to establish.”


Emily and Ted Cohen, residents of Williamsburg, Massachusetts, were convinced by glowing promises from Dynamic Energy that a solar installation on land abutting their 34-acre property would be helping create clean energy. In reality, the installers never followed their own protective guidelines, and the result was that many acres of the Cohen’s forested land have been severely damaged or destroyed. The project took down two to three times as many trees as it claimed. And when the flooding, erosion, and water pollution occurred, they were on their own to deal with it.


And a study examining property values after the installation of industrial scale solar arrays found that property values decreased from 1.7% on average in the town and much more than that as one gets closer to the installations themselves.

Wildlife:

A clearcut makes land inhospitable to wildlife and forces wide-ranging species into smaller and smaller areas. Invasive species may replace indigenous ones as an indirect result of clearcutting procedures. The loss of even a few indigenous species can alter the entire balance of the ecosystem and introduce new diseases – e.g., from mosquitoes and ticks- that are more easily introduced.

Debunking Misinformation

1) The town will receive the energy from the arrays:

No. The energy produced from these arrays will go directly to the grid and Shutesbury will have no control over or receive any direct benefit from the arrays.

2) Development will happen anyway

Any development that threatens health, safety, and other property through erosion and runoff, is prevented by our town bylaws. It is only the outdated zoning exemption that is allowing companies to skirt such protective bylaws.

3) The array is impermanent

While the array may be designed to only last 20 years, the damage caused to the groundwater and forests will take 150 years or more to recover, if it recovers at all.

4) Cost for alternative solar options is too high

Experts have found that 80% of the state’s energy needs can be met by rooftop solar alone. Another 24,000 miles of transmission corridors can be used for solar as well. While these and other approaches may be somewhat less profitable to whoever develops them, they are true solutions that contribute to a livable future.

5) There is a net energy efficiency gain in replacing forests with arrays

Studies out of Clark University and the Harvard Forest Research Center, find the opposite.