WESTHAMPTON — Construction of an $8 million, 5-megawatt solar energy system will likely begin next spring after a French electricity company won approval for the project earlier this month.
Should CVE North America Inc. be accepted into the state’s Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, construction could begin at a site off Montague and North roads next spring, according to Alexander Fox, the project’s business developer.
“We are excited to get the permit and have everything we need to submit the project to the SMART program,” Fox said.
The SMART program provides financial incentives to solar developers, which is one of the reasons CVE has targeted Massachusetts for the development of this solar project, according to CVE solar design engineer Matthew Gabor.
The project will use 20.9 acres of a 139-acre property, owned by Kurt Meehan of Agawam, and would generate about 4.98 megawatts of power for CVE.
The system would include 17,280 solar modules across two 10-acre parcels of Meehan’s property, and the modules would be 3 feet off the ground, standing at a little over 6 feet high, more than 3 feet wide, and less than 2 inches thick.
“I am pleased that we approved it, it’s a good project,” Planning Board member Wade Clement said on Thursday. The board gave its unanimous approval of a special permit on Sept. 5.
Clement noted that there are still hurdles for the project to overcome. In addition to the SMART program, conditions of a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program have to be worked out with the town’s assessor.
At the July 24 Planning Board hearing, board member Donald “Pat” Coffey indicated that the town’s assistant assessor, Dolores Thornhill, had estimated the yearly revenue from such a program would be $80,000 for the town.
“The PILOT program is one of the incentives for taking one of these projects on,” Clement said. “If towns are wise in negotiations, there can be a significant amount of tax revenues for a town with little industry, very little businesses.”
The project would take roughly three months to complete, Fox said. The solar company and Meehan have a 20-year agreement with options to extend for up to 40 years.
CVE applied for the special permit in June and received the go-ahead after four Planning Board hearings and three Conservation Commission hearings.
The hearings included reports by peer reviewers from SWCA Environmental Consultants of Amherst, Heritage Surveys of Southampton, and VHB consultantsof Springfield.
Over the course of the application process, many of the boards’ concerns were addressed.
The issue of the project’s visibility from those walking or driving past the solar energy system caused concern for both groups. Meredith Savage, of SWCA, informed residents that the nearest corner of the energy system from Montague Road would be just shy of 190 feet.
There would be “a swath of 40 to 50 feet of mature forest, with trees on average of 60-plus feet height” in between the road and the project once constructed, according to Savage.
She referred to the project as one of the “better sites” she’s seen in terms of visual impact to the town. The view from North Road, Savage said, would be “nearly impossible” since the closest point is about 200 feet away.
The Planning Board also wanted financial assurance for the decommissioning of the system, should CVE fold or abandon the project once constructed. The solar company and town came to an agreement that CVE will provide a surety bond of $283,000 with about a 2 percent yearly escalator.
For Clement, the decommissioning plan and surety bond were a “big detail” he worked on and said that the willingness of CVE to provide that amount for surety was “a big movement in the right direction.”
The project also required approval from the Conservation Commission, and CVE made adjustments to address commission member’s concerns.
One of the most significant changes of the design, developed by SWCA, was the pulling back of some solar arrays from a buffer zone on the northern half of the project to keep them away from wetlands.
There will be stone check dams installed going from east to west to help manage stormwater drainage during peak hours of water flow, according to Fox.
CVE will also level certain areas on the site to abide with the town’s solar bylaw that requires for arrays to be installed on slopes less than 15 degrees.
Additionally, CVE agreed to run a power line underneath wetlands on Montague Road at the request of the Conservation Commission. There will still be six utility poles for equipment that Eversource officials said could not be put underground, according to Fox.
Luis Fieldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org