FITZWILLIAM — Representatives for what would be the biggest solar array in New Hampshire held the first public forum on the project Thursday night, answering numerous questions from residents about noise, environmental impacts and other topics.
NextEra Energy Resources is proposing to build a 30-megawatt solar plant on about 110 acres of private land south of Route 119, along the transmission lines that run roughly parallel to Fullam Hill Road.
The site is forested land that has been logged in the past, according to NextEra.
The Florida-based company expects to apply for state approval next month and finish construction in fall 2021.
At the Fitzwilliam Town Hall Thursday, after an overview of the proposal, project director Heath Barefoot and more than a half-dozen technical experts hired by NextEra took residents’ questions.
Some of the electrical infrastructure at the site would generate a low, steady sound, but the noise impact on homes in the area would be negligible, said Matthew Riegert of the firm Tech Environmental, which conducted an acoustic study. In most cases, he said, it would be imperceptible to the human ear.
But noise was clearly a concern for at least some in the audience, as Riegert answered a number of detailed follow-ups about how the study was done.
Residents also asked about environmental impacts, particularly to wetlands and wildlife.
NextEra representatives said the project would not directly affect any wetlands and would have a 75-foot buffer from those areas.
As for wildlife, Dana Valleau, an environmental consultant with TRC Environmental, said the N.H. Fish and Game Department is most concerned about bats and a couple of turtle species in the area. Valleau said the tree cutting would happen in the winter, when bats won’t be in the trees, and specially designed gaps in the fencing would allow turtles to pass through.
Stephanie Scherr, a Fitzwilliam resident wearing a “Fossil Free 603” button, said she is generally supportive of solar but wants to make sure the siting protects wetlands and other sensitive resources.
“Sitting here tonight and hearing your questions and your comments and the thoughtful things that you have to say, I feel that — even though there are some concerns and there are things that we can work to mitigate — that this project has a lot of benefits for us,” she said in a public comment period after the Q&A.
But for Alex Carrier, the project seems like mostly downside.
Carrier — who has installed solar panels as an electrician — said he lives in the house that would be closest to the site’s substation. He’s worried about noise and diminished property values.
He also doesn’t want to lose a large swath of forest near his home, in an area where he goes hunting.
“You can get away,” he said before Thursday’s meeting. “You can walk out there for an entire day.”
The Chinook project would be the first utility-scale solar plant in New Hampshire, selling power directly to utilities rather than offsetting the electricity needs of individual consumers. And it would dwarf any existing solar-energy system in the state today. The state’s entire solar-generating capacity in December was about 84 megawatts, according to regional grid operator ISO New England.
Power companies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have signed agreements to buy electricity from the Chinook project, part of their efforts to meet those states’ clean-energy goals.
Essentially, that means the electricity generated in Fitzwilliam would flow onto the New England power grid to be used wherever it’s needed. Then the utilities that had paid for it could take an equivalent amount of electricity off the grid elsewhere.
“The facility in New Hampshire gets the credit for feeding those electrons into the grid, and the guys in Connecticut said, ‘We take electrons off the grid,’ and it’s really a paper transfer that’s happening,” Michael B. Mooiman, a professor at Franklin Pierce University who studies the New Hampshire energy scene, said in an interview in May.
Natural gas and nuclear dominate the New England energy grid, accounting for about 70 percent of generation in the region, according to ISO New England. Solar was around 1 percent as of last year.
NextEra representatives said the company plans to submit an application to the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, which approves the placement of large energy facilities, by the end of August. Thursday’s public information session was required as part of that process.
The application kicks off a lengthy approval process, which includes additional opportunities for public comment.
Meanwhile, town officials and NextEra still have to work out agreements on aspects of the project, including a payments-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, which would lock in a set yearly payment to the town.
The state approval process replaces planning-board review, but town officials still plan to do their own “due diligence” on the project, said Terry Silverman, vice chairman of the Fitzwilliam Planning Board. By statute, the Site Evaluation Committee is supposed to consider the views of town officials and local and regional planning bodies.
NextEra has agreed to reimburse Fitzwilliam for the costs the town incurs in reviewing the project, Barefoot said Thursday.
The Site Evaluation Committee has considered several proposed wind farms but has never reviewed a solar project.
Patricia Martin, a Rindge resident and clean-energy activist who attended Thursday’s meeting, said she hopes the project is successful and can serve as a model for other projects.
“I’m really hoping that the Monadnock Region gets the first big solar project in New Hampshire,” she said.
More information about the NextEra project, including technical studies, is available on the town website at https://bit.ly/2Lt6szU.