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Planning Board expected to make decision on solar array Aug. 19

Date: 8/6/2015

WILBRAHAM – The Planning Board is expected to make a decision on a special permit for a proposed ground-mounted solar array project during its Aug. 19 meeting.

Planning Director John Pearsall told Reminder Publications No Fossil Fuel, a renewable energy developer based in Kingston and the petitioner or the special permit, plans on leasing 6.5 acres from the Charles Merrick Trust near Tinkham Road in order to build the solar array in the residentially zoned area.

The town’s zoning bylaws regarding solar power only allow for its usages in industrial areas with site plan approval and in certain residential areas with a special permit, he noted.

The board would likely make a draft decision during the Aug. 19 meeting, Pearsall said. However, the board has 90 days until the end of the public hearing to make its final say known.

The Planning Board hosted a public hearing on June 17, which was continued to July 15 in order to give the applicant additional time to address issues and concerns, he added.

“Some of the concerns that were raised dealt with if there was going to be any potential noise from the equipment, particularly the inverters … I would say the main concern was the potential for some visual impacts on abutting properties,” he added.

The solar array works by collecting solar energy via the panels, which is converted to usable electrical current by the use of the inverter that is then distributed onto the grid, he noted.

Pearsall said the hearing was also continued to allow the applicant to delineate adjacent wetlands.

“The Conservation Commission confirmed that all of the work that they’re doing is outside of the Conservation Commission’s jurisdiction,” he added. “They’re not working in a wetland area.”

According to the minutes from the June 17 meeting, the petitioners plan to build 2,100 solar panels from which 50 percent of the power would be distributed off site while the remaining power would be available for neighboring residents to purchase at a reduced rate. Up to 650 kilowatts could be generated at the site.  

Michael Frenette, chief financial officer of No Fossil Fuel, later said his company thought of building the solar array in Wilbraham because the site had been cleared of majority of trees from the 2011 tornado.

The solar array is anticipated to be a “community solar project,” that would consist of 2.5 to 3 acres, he added. The arrays would be between eight and nine feet off of the ground.

Frenette said No Fossil Fuel has done everything that has been asked of them by the Planning Board and he is “optimistic” that the project would receive a green light.

He added that original plans for the project called for a centralized inverter, which makes a small amount of noise.

“Now we have microinverters that have no fans, so there’s no noise,” Frenette said.

The site is in compliance with the setback requirements and is isolated from neighboring properties, he noted.

Pearsall said the main concern regarding the project are making sure the extensive zoning regulations that cover the installation and operation of solar power systems are in-check and that safeguards would be put in police for the permitting process.

“Some of those issues deal with the visual impacts – trying to mitigate those as much as is practical,” he added.

“They could do a little more research and refine some of the language in the decision some more,” he added. ‘It may or may not be finalized in August.”

Pearsall said No Fossil Fuel informally approached the board regarding the installation several years ago, but during that time the zoning bylaw did not allow for the usage at the location.

He added that the zoning usage was passed during 2014 Town Meeting and it took another five to six months before the public hearing took place.

Pearsall said the board’s review of the applicant has been “rigorous.”

“It’s been a little bit difficult getting them to submit their information in the right format,” he added. “That’s taken the longest amount of time ... It was incomplete, it was missing a lot of things. Some of the plans weren’t up to the standards that were required in the zoning.”

No Fossil Fuel hired a new group of engineers after being unsatisfied with the results of the first, Pearsall said.

The company was founded in 2011 and owns and operates a 6 megawatt wind farm in Kingston, according to No Fossil Fuel’s website. The company is currently pursuing and developing solar and wind power facilities throughout the country.