It’s not hard to find evidence of solar’s popularity in the Monadnock Region. Solar arrays have appeared on churches, municipal facilities and homes. Volunteers have organized to encourage rooftop solar and transition Keene to clean energy. Local governments have worked solar into zoning ordinances.
But the area’s solar output could soon surge, if a batch of proposed utility-scale projects come through.
The two biggest projects — facilities proposed by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources for Fitzwilliam and Hinsdale — would have a combined capacity of 80 megawatts, nearly as much as New Hampshire’s total statewide solar capacity today.
NextEra’s 30-megawatt Chinook Solar Project in Fitzwilliam has progressed the farthest, with long-term power purchasing contracts with utilities in place and an estimated completion date of fall 2021. NextEra officials have been meeting with town representatives and say they plan to hold a public information session and start the state approval process this year.
The 50-megawatt Chariot Solar Project in Hinsdale has not yet secured a long-term contract to supply power to a utility — likely a necessary step to move forward, due to the financial security it would provide, according to public NextEra bids.
Meanwhile, two other companies have sketched out plans for 20-megawatt arrays, in Peterborough and Marlborough. They appear to be at about the same stage as the Hinsdale effort — bidding for contracts that would allow the projects to proceed.
Any of the proposals “would by far be the biggest solar projects in New Hampshire,” said Madeleine Mineau, executive director of Clean Energy NH, a Concord-based advocacy and policy group. The largest existing solar array in the state is around two megawatts.
New Hampshire’s current solar capacity today — about 84 megawatts, according to grid operator ISO New England — comes from thousands of smaller systems distributed across the state.
Those systems vary in size. A homeowner might install a five-kilowatt rooftop array. Keene businessman Toby Tousley’s new array on a commercial building on Emerald Street can produce up to 140 kilowatts. The 2,010 solar panels installed on the roof of Keene’s municipal building on Marlboro Street have a 642-kilowatt capacity.
The largest such installation in the Monadnock Region is likely the five-acre solar farm at Peterborough’s wastewater treatment plant, capable of generating close to 1,000 kilowatts, or one megawatt.
So-called “distributed solar” systems power specific buildings and feed any excess electricity into the grid for others to use.
By contrast, utility-scale facilities like the NextEra projects sell energy on the wholesale market, as a nuclear or coal-fired plant would. No such projects exist in New Hampshire right now, according to energy-industry observers, though a number have been proposed.
“I really believe New Hampshire’s on the cusp of a lot of utility-scale solar development,” said Michael Mooiman, a Franklin Pierce University professor who follows energy issues in New Hampshire. “I think we’re going to see big changes in the landscape, both figuratively and literally, in the next couple of years.”
New England gets about 1 percent of its electric generation from solar, which is swamped by natural gas and nuclear, according to ISO New England. Though significant in terms of solar, a 30-megawatt array would be a small addition to a grid with more than 30,000 megawatts of generating ability.
“It’s a small fraction of a Seabrook,” said Mooiman, referring to the New Hampshire nuclear power plant capable of producing more than 1,200 megawatts. “And then it’s different, because Seabrook generates electricity 24/7. Solar doesn’t.”
On average, Chinook’s actual output would be about 20 percent of its rated capacity, according to the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission, compared to more than 90 percent for typical nuclear plants.
Fitzwilliam project heats up
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 an October 2018 bid. It’s the majority owner of Seabrook.
NextEra is proposing to build its Fitzwilliam array on undeveloped, mostly forested private land between Route 119 to the north, Route 12 to the west and Fullam Hill Road to the east. A portion of the land abuts a transmission line right-of-way.
The solar panels and other infrastructure would cover about 111 acres; the total footprint, including vegetative buffers and required setbacks, would be 156 acres, according to NextEra spokeswoman Lisa Paul. Draft site plans show more than 350 rows of solar panels on irregularly shaped parcels reminiscent of a chain of lakes. The strange boundary lines are drawn to skirt wetlands.
The Chinook project was among the proposals that, in 2016, won a clean energy procurement process seeking bids from projects that would help electric utilities in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island meet state-set goals for clean energy. Chinook was awarded long-term contracts in which those utilities agree to pay for power produced by the array.
Those contracts said Chinook was to begin commercial operation by Nov. 1, 2019, but the timeline has been pushed back. NextEra representatives have said in public meetings that they now plan to start construction around January 2021 and have the facility up and running that fall.
State, local and public review
To build Chinook, NextEra must obtain the approval of the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the siting of large electric-generation facilities. The committee weighs, among other factors, whether a facility would “unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region” or have an “unreasonable” impact on aesthetics, air and water quality, the environment or public health and safety.
Though Site Evaluation Committee review preempts the town planning board process, committee members are expected to consider input from local officials and local and regional planning bodies, according to state law. The process also includes multiple opportunities for public comment.
Paul said NextEra plans to file an application with the committee this year, kicking off an approval process that can last more than a year.
Meanwhile, Fitzwilliam officials and NextEra representatives have been discussing a possible memorandum of understanding related to the project, as well as a potential payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement laying out how much NextEra would owe the town.
“We’re still just kind of trying to understand it,” said Daniel Baker, chairman of the Fitzwilliam Board of Selectmen.
He said he believes there is a general appetite for clean energy among townspeople, but wants to make sure the project is done properly.
Members of the Fitzwilliam Planning Board have raised concerns they want addressed, including how the project would affect wetlands, wildlife corridors and views from nearby roads and high points. Officials have also stressed the need to plan for decommissioning the array at the end of its useful lifespan, estimated at 30 years.
Planning Board Chairwoman Suzanne Gray said board members are seeking more details and hope to hire independent experts paid for by the company.
“We do want to work with NextEra,” she said. “They have been respectful of our ordinances.”
Though the Site Evaluation Committee has considered several proposed wind farms, it’s never reviewed a solar project. The Fitzwilliam proposal will likely be the first, according to Mineau of Clean Energy NH. “That’s something that we’re watching very closely,” she said.
Other projects seek contracts
NextEra’s larger Chariot proposal in Hinsdale is at an earlier stage. In January 2017, the Hinsdale Board of Selectmen issued a letter of support for the project, but it has yet to win a contract to sell power. In October, NextEra submitted a bid involving Chariot to a Rhode Island request for proposals; project selections should be made in June.
“We plan to continue developing the project with the goal of securing a long-term contract,” Paul, the company spokeswoman, said in her email.
The project likely needs to win such a contract before moving forward.
The proposed 50-megawatt solar array would be built on approximately 245 acres of private land, out of a 400-acre footprint to include vegetative buffers and setbacks from wetlands and property lines, according to Paul. A Sentinel report from 2017 identified the location as between Brattleboro Road and Monument Road.
NextEra isn’t the only company pitching solar projects in the Monadnock Region.
Freepoint Solar, LLC, a subsidiary of a Connecticut-based energy company, submitted a bid to the same Rhode Island RFP based on a proposed 20-megawatt solar array in Peterborough. The company also put in bids involving projects in Claremont and Vernon, Vt.
The public version of the Peterborough bid says the company has a lease option with a landowner. The facility, surrounded by woods, would not be visible from roads or abutting properties.
In an email, a spokeswoman for the company said the site is “in the southern part of town near Route 101.” Though still trying to secure an agreement to sell power, Freepoint hopes to start construction in late 2020 or early 2021, the spokeswoman, Serra Saridereli, said. “We expect to provide more details to town officials this Fall,” she wrote.
And though it was not selected, a potential project in Marlborough was recently submitted during a request for proposals out of Connecticut. According to the bid from Connecticut-based Lodestar Energy, the 20-megawatt, 72-acre project would be built off Troy Road, on land bisected by a power-line right-of-way.