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Proposed Devens solar farm developer seeks more time

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DEVENS – Citizens Energy Corporation, the non-profit energy company established in 1979 by former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, is seeking permit approvals to build a solar farm on Devens.

Citizens has partnered with upstart Rivermoor Energy of Newton on the Devens project. The resulting Rivermoor-Citizens LLC showcased their proposal at a Nov. 3 public hearing before the Devens Enterprise Commission.

The hearing was continued until Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 6:45 p.m. to permit Rivermoor-Citizens to clear some hurdles facing its Level 2 unified permit for the construction of a 3.0 megawatt photovoltaic farm on the northwestern outskirts of the Devens Regional Economic Zone (DREZ). The goals is to gather the necessary approvals in order to invest at least five percent of the $12 million project cost in the lot at the corner of Walker and Hazen Roads by year’s end to secure federal solar energy tax credits.

Civil engineer Cal Goldsmith of Goldsmith, Prest & Ringwall explained that there would be a series of ground-mounted steel racks installed inside a 14-acre fenced portion of the 28 acre lot which would be leased to Rivermoor-Citizens by MassDevelopment. The site was once used by the Army in the 1970s for exercises. Goldsmith said the area is now zoned for “Environmental Business” uses, which permits recycling and manufacturing operations, though Goldsmith said the solar field will be a “less intense” use of the land.

“This is going to be strictly solar,” said Goldsmith.

The plan calls for leveling most of the trees in excess of sixty feet in height, including many tall pines that are taller than 100 feet now. To succeed, Goldsmith said there must be mainly unabated sunshine hitting the solar panels.

“Solar panels are very sensitive to shadow,” said Goldsmith. ‘If you have 10-percent shadow for a certain period of time, it draws the whole string [productivity] down by 40-50 percent Like Christmas tree lights, if one fails, it brings the whole string down.”

Commissioner William Castro questioned why Rivermoor-Citizens will cut 200 feet into the 300 foot deep buffer zone otherwise required along Walker Road. Castro wondered if the tree loss would result in an “eyesore” for neighbors. Across Hazen Road is a series of single family homes located just outside the DREZ in the Town of Shirley.

Instead of mass plantings at lower heights, Goldsmith said “We’ll do selective screening where required. We already agreed to do that [later because it’s] hard to clearly say at this time how much needs to be done.”

Five 6-kilowatt inverters would be use to convert the DC power into AC electricity. The power will flow from the site along transmission lines leading to the Devens wastewater treatment plant with the power being sold to MassDevelopment.

A couple of clouds are threatening Rivermoor-Citizens solar project.

First, the state Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP) identifies four vernal pools aside the project. Blue spotted salamanders, which are deemed animals of “special state concern,” living in two of four pools. But wood frogs and fairy shrimp are in the two man-made seasonal pools located closest to the proposed solar site.

“We do propose cutting trees right up to our [rear] property line,” said Goldsmith. National Heritage wasn’t “thrilled” with those prospects, said Goldsmith.

Another storm threat is the developer’s recent discovery of an archeological site along the Hazen Road frontage. Seems a farmhouse once stood on the site, though no foundation exists there presently. Still, at first blush, it seems that mature maple trees around the historical site cannot be cut which would throw another wrench in the works for Rivermoor-Citizens.

“It been identified as something that needs investigating,” with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, said Goldsmith. But a full blown archeological study could take months and “take a lot of money. We really don’t have that as an option.”

Shirley resident Kathy Bourassa has lived at 122 Hazen Road for 26 years. She was concerned about construction traffic, though Goldsmith said the access point for the lot has yet to be definitively determined. Bourassa also expressed concern that Hazen road homes would absorb “the bulk of the visual impact.”

“Were any other parcels looked?” asked Bourassa. “At Grant Road they’re already clear cut.”

Ayer selectman Frank Maxant asked, “Are we seeing the future of solar in New England? Destroy local habitat for brown bear and deer instead of using open land?” He suggested building the solar field atop the former Army Moore airfield or at the Devens wastewater treatment plant itself.

“We’re trying to balance environmental objectives with green energy objectives,” answered Rivermoor Energy Managing Director John Tourtelotte. “Climate change is real – we’re seeing it .This land was cleared previously by the Army. There are some natural corridors here for animals to migrate. We are putting forth the best faith effort. We think this is much less impactful than a recycling center that could be located here.”

Maxant powered on, reading from the partnership’s application that the project will “further green energy goals” in Massachusetts. “If it’s consistent with Massachusetts initiatives, then it ‘must’ fit into Devens zoning?”

Not exactly said DEC Administrator Peter Lowitt, but in this case, “It’s just sort of icing on the cake.”

Goldsmith said the developers would provide updated information – including final proposed lot lines – to the commission by Nov. 9 in time for the public hearing to continue on Nov. 15.

After any decision is rendered, there remains a 30 day appeal period for objections lodged by residents of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. Goldsmith said the plan then is to quickly comply with the tax credit spending requirements by Dec. 31. Goldsmith called the tax credit a “key part” of the project’s financing.

“Seems we’re kind of away from a done deal,” said Commissioner James DeZutter. “There’s a lot of ground to cover before we get there.”

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