Solar array

A large solar project in Fitzwilliam has officially received the go-ahead from the relevant state regulatory body.

The N.H. Site Evaluation Committee had already voted in October to approve the 30-megawatt Chinook Solar Project, after finding that it met all the criteria. On Thursday, the committee issued a written order granting the project a certificate of site and facility, which allows it to proceed.

The facility will be the largest solar array in New Hampshire by far, with about 10 times the capacity of the biggest one built to date. It was also the first solar project big enough to come before the Site Evaluation Committee, which approves large energy facilities.

“I’m so proud of the Monadnock Region for being the first to have a big solar install like this,” said Patricia Martin of Rindge, a climate-change activist who followed the proceedings.

She praised Fitzwilliam’s elected leaders and residents for showing up at public hearings, thoroughly vetting the project and, ultimately, being willing to host a large new source of clean energy. “It’s really easy to take that not-in-my-backyard approach.”

NextEra Energy Resources, the Florida-based company behind the project, has said it plans to finish construction by the end of next year. A company spokeswoman could not provide more specifics Monday because the relevant people were off for the holidays.

NextEra has secured rights to about 500 acres south of Route 119, between Route 12 and Fullam Hill Road, though most of that will be left intact. The facility is expected to cover about 110 acres, according to the company’s application materials.

Consisting of more than 100,000 solar panels, the array will be capable of producing up to 30 megawatts at a time — though the average output will be much lower, as it is for all solar, due to factors like cloud cover and nighttime. NextEra says it’ll produce enough energy annually to power about 7,000 homes.

Power companies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have signed agreements to buy the electricity, part of their efforts to meet clean-energy goals in those states.

By law, the Site Evaluation Committee had to consider multiple factors before approving Chinook. It had to determine that the project would serve the public interest, wouldn’t get in the way of the region’s “orderly development” and wouldn’t seriously undermine aesthetics, public health or the environment. NextEra also had to prove it has the financial and technical ability to build and run the facility.

Local officials have also done their due diligence, said Suzanne Gray, chairwoman of the Fitzwilliam Planning Board. She said the selectboard, planning board and conservation commission were all involved, and the town — at NextEra’s expense — hired experts to review the potential impacts on wetlands, wildlife and other areas.

Their feedback, Gray said, was incorporated into a memorandum of understanding between the town and NextEra. Compliance with that agreement is one of the requirements of the Site Evaluation Committee’s approval.

The memorandum states that NextEra will implement the recommendations of the town’s environmental consultant and place the land it controls surrounding the facility under conservation easements. The agreement also covers a range of other topics, from setting maximum noise levels to a $900,000 bond NextEra will put up to ensure the facility is decommissioned properly decades from now.

The agreement also promises Fitzwilliam a onetime “community benefit payment” of $300,000 once the project is up and running, to be used as the town wishes.

The town’s initial concerns included noise, environmental impacts and visibility, said Daniel Baker, the chairman of the selectboard. He said NextEra has been responsive, and town officials are satisfied with how the company has addressed those issues so far.

“We do plan to monitor it,” Baker said. “We’ve had a pretty good relationship with Chinook. They’ve actually done what they’ve said they’re going to do to date, and I hope that continues.”

NextEra representatives have also expressed interest in negotiating a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with the town, which would commit the company to paying the town a flat annual rate, instead of a variable amount of property taxes each year. In its application, filed in October 2019, NextEra estimated a rate of $300,000 per year, in addition to about $160,000 annually in state utility tax.

Baker said those negotiations are still ongoing. He declined to comment on the figures under consideration.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS