FITZWILLIAM — The company hoping to develop the state’s first utility-scale solar plant here has filed an application with the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, kicking off a months-long approval process.
Called the Chinook Solar Project, the planned 30-megawatt solar generation plant in Fitzwilliam would dwarf every existing solar array in New Hampshire. It’s also the first-ever solar proposal to come before the Site Evaluation Committee. The committee has jurisdiction over the siting of large energy projects.
NextEra is proposing to build the project on about 110 acres of private land south of Route 119, between Fullam Hill Road and Route 12.
NextEra’s application says the company plans to begin construction in November 2020, assuming it has obtained all the necessary regulatory approvals. It expects the facility to start producing power in October 2021. It would last an anticipated 30 years, though could remain in operation longer, according to the company.
The next step under New Hampshire law is for the committee to determine whether the application is complete. If so, a public information session would be held within 45 days.
Daniel Baker, chairman of the Fitzwilliam Board of Selectmen, said town officials are still evaluating the project and plan to be involved in the Site Evaluation Committee process. “I think the attitude of the select board, at least, is we’re gathering information,” he said.
A subsidiary of a Florida-based parent company, NextEra Energy Resources has more than 20,000 megawatts of generating capacity in North America, mostly from wind, but also including solar, nuclear, oil and gas, according to its 2018 annual report. It’s the majority owner of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant on New Hampshire’s Seacoast.
The Chinook project’s output would feed into New England’s interconnected regional grid. Power companies in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have contracts to buy the electricity produced at the Fitzwilliam facility.
“The Project will produce enough clean energy to meet the annual energy consumption needs of approximately 7,000 average homes,” the Chinook application states. “Furthermore, by diversifying the energy mix in the region, the Project can help reduce the volatility of energy costs.”
Even if out-of-state companies buy the power, solar facilities like Chinook can benefit New Hampshire and the rest of the region by nudging its grid in a cleaner direction, said Thomas Webler, an associate professor in Keene State College’s Department of Environmental Studies.
“We have to solve this carbon pollution problem by taking the big polluting plants offline,” he said, referring to the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. “… As you turn off capacity somewhere, new capacity has to come on somewhere.”
An analysis by EarthShift Global LLC of Kittery, Maine, submitted with NextEra’s application, calculated the Fitzwilliam solar project’s carbon footprint as equivalent to producing 105,000 tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime. That includes losing the carbon-absorbing effect of the trees cleared from the area, burning those trees as firewood and manufacturing, installing and decommissioning the solar panels.
By contrast, producing the same amount of electricity from natural gas would have a carbon footprint nearly 11 times that, the analysis found — the equivalent of releasing more than 1.1 million tons of carbon dioxide.
NextEra’s 90-page application lays out parts of the project in detail.
The company plans to install 116,766 solar panels and build about two miles of new access roads on undeveloped land that has seen timber harvesting in the past several decades. While the entire site covers more than 500 acres, only 129 acres would be cleared. The solar panels, substation, access roads and other infrastructure would be limited to 110 acres.
The nearest home would be 290 feet south of the southernmost solar panel, according to the application.
In support of its application, NextEra submitted materials including a decommissioning plan and studies on the potential effects on wetlands, wildlife, archaeological resources, noise and scenic views. In general, NextEra says the project will have little to no impact on those things.
Noise and wetlands were among the concerns raised by some residents at the July meeting. NextEra’s application says the facility will comply with the town’s noise ordinance and “will not produce sound that will unreasonably adversely affect nearby residents or the general public.”
The company also says it has designed the facility to “avoid all direct impacts to wetlands and waterbodies” and minimize work within the town’s 75-foot wetlands buffer.
Access roads would cross streams at two points, and 1.13 acres of tree cutting and 0.77 acres of access roads would fall within the wetlands buffer, according to the application. Scott Brook would be a quarter-mile from the project at its closest point, according to NextEra.
Members of the town planning board and conservation commission are studying those issues, Baker said. Town officials are also talking with Site Evaluation Committee staff and considering whether to hire their own experts to study certain issues, such as noise. “That was one of the prominent issues that was raised at the public hearing,” Baker said.
NextEra and Fitzwilliam are in discussions about a possible payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement, which would specify how much the company would pay the town each year over the long term. Such an agreement would reduce uncertainty in the company’s annual payments to the town, rather than following fluctuations in the tax rate year-to-year.
Though a number hasn’t been agreed to yet, NextEra has used an estimate of $300,000 in annual payments in its economic modeling.
Baker said that before town officials negotiate a PILOT, they want to make sure they fully understand the value of the project so the payments are roughly in line with what the company would otherwise pay in property taxes.
At this point, there’s still a lot of work to do, he said. “I couldn’t even begin to tell you if that’s the right number, the wrong number,” he said of the $300,000 figure.
Additionally, the company says the project would yield about $160,000 in annual tax revenue for the state.
NextEra has also pitched a 50-megawatt solar project in Hinsdale, but it’s not as far along as the Fitzwilliam one.
“We anticipate filing an application with the NH Site Evaluation Committee for the project sometime next year,” Lisa Paul, a NextEra spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday.