Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Public, Private Solar Farms Proposed for Bolton

The sun shines bright here, which helps the town's apple orchards.

It also falls onto property that could soon yield another crop — solar power.

Two possible solar projects are in the beginning stages, and the town is looking at a proposed solar bylaw to regulate solar installations.

Bolton Orchards is famous for its apples. But behind the business at Routes 117 and 110, where locals and tourists stop for apples and produce, a gravel pit could become a solar installation.

That roughly 40-acre property owned by Davis Farms Trust at 125 Still River Road could now be home to a solar farm, according to Brian Kopperl of Renewable Energy Massachusetts.

Syncarpha Solar and Renewable Energy Massachusetts, the companies that are developing the project, plan a hearing for neighbors at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bolton Orchards.

Approximately 26 acres of the site would be covered with 25,090 panels that would produce 4.95 megawatts.

The plan will go through town approval channels for a special permit, although state regulations regarding solar power trump any restrictions on commercial use in a residential district, Mr. Kopperl said.

He said the panels would rise to 10 feet at a high angle that would shed snow. No noise problems should be created, Mr. Kopperl said. The power inverters that convert the DC power from the panels to the AC power transmitted through power lines make some noise, but at a distance from abutters.

The Planning Board will hold a public meeting on the company's application for a special permit at 7:30 p.m. March 28 in the Houghton Building meeting room, 697 Main St.

Selectmen will examine the project as part of a site plan review. Town assessors are also negotiating with the company on how the property will be assessed, according to Town Administrator Donald Lowe.

Meanwhile, the town Energy Committee is seeking proposals to build a solar installation on one of several town-owned parcels. That could allow the town to benefit from lease revenue as well as be a potential customer for power at discounted rates.

A project of 0.5 megawatts would generate 570 megawatt hours per year, using about three acres, according to Margaret Campbell of the committee. It also needs a southern exposure and access to power infrastructure for carrying power to customers. A larger 1-megawatt system would require five acres and generate 1,140-megawatt hours per year.

The town uses an estimated 590 megawatts per year, excluding the schools. Power would be sold to the town at a discount, and any not used by the town could be sold.

The savings for the town could be $57,000 a year for the smaller system and more than $86,000 for the larger one.

Ms. Campbell said changes in the market “make it very beneficial” for the town to become involved.

There are no liabilities for the town, she said. The developer would build the system and maintain it. The system is taxed, and the developer removes it once the system becomes non-operational.

Once all permitting is completed, construction could take four to six months. The major unknown is the time for getting proposals back, reviewing options and selecting a developer.

Although the landfill on Forbush Mill Road, adjacent to the Bolton Orchards property, is one possible site, other town-owned parcels could be considered in any proposals.

The town already benefits from leasing cell towers built on town property.

“I see no downside,” Selectman Dave Lindsay said before the board authorized the Energy Committee to seek proposals from developers.

Although the projects are expensive to build, part of the allure is the government tax incentive. A company could gain millions of dollars in tax credits, ultimately yielding a profit that pays back the initial investment. Meanwhile, the power being sold allows a constant source of revenue.

If approved at the May town meeting, a proposed bylaw would regulate further development of the solar industry in town. But the intent, as expressed in the bylaw, is to promote solar, adding construction standards that would also protect the town and neighbors


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