Guest columnist Eric Bachrach: Temporary pause on large-scale solar makes sense

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

When the Amherst Town Council convenes on Feb. 28, the fate of a temporary moratorium on large-scale solar will be decided. The moratorium will suspend the development of any ground-mounted solar larger than 250 kilowatt for the next 14 months, unless a solar bylaw, governing large scale solar development, is created before then.

Amherst should be commended for moving forward carefully. Along with the location and potential size of new arrays, we are entering a new era in Amherst for industrialized solar. Amherst’s previous solar projects were largely sited on open land, neither forest nor farmland. The conditions surrounding the development of solar arrays like the one near Cherry Hill and the one across from Atkins Market were entirely different. Neither one required clear cutting 45 acres of forest land.

Where solar should be, in Amherst and the region, is the big question. How much should the town’s Master Plan, which calls for keeping critical tracts of the highest quality habitats undeveloped and permanently protected, guide our decisions? Furthermore, the Master Plan calls for the identification and permanent protection of lands buffering Amherst water supply, wells and reservoirs from development. Can it be done?

For Amherst, a solar siting assessment working group is being created to wrestle with these central questions. The working group will be charged, in part, with analyzing the impacts of large-scale solar development, including battery storage, on our public and private water supplies; on wildlife; on erosion; on fire and hazardous material run off concerns.

The siting study will identify opportunities for solar throughout the community: in the built environment — on roof tops, parking lot canopies and in the natural landscape. Hopefully, it will calculate the responsibility that the colleges and university should bear in doing their part. This will be an incredible group to lead the way to responsible development of solar energy. Why would we want to allow projects to move forward until we finish this study?

By taking the time that a moratorium provides, we can learn a great deal from other towns. The consequences of failed planning and judgment can be critically important lessons learned. We have models of what not to do. The ecological and environmental consequences of misplaced solar can be disastrous. Just look at what happened in Williamsburg and in Conway to see the results of failed planning, which caused irreparable damage to surrounding neighbors and neighborhoods in these towns.

What do we gain by taking the time that a temporary moratorium provides, time taken by towns like East Longmeadow, Charlton, Blanford, Granby, Athol, Wendell and others?

The gift of time that we grant ourselves gives us the opportunity to measure risks and benefits; fully understand differing scientific perspectives on siting solar; understand the recommendations of Amherst’s Master Plan; and at the same time engage the town to fully understand what it values when siting large arrays. We have a wonderful opportunity ahead to benefit from other towns’ history with large-scale solar; from the expertise the working group will bring to the process; and from the voices of the community.

As has been said by others at many public meetings, why wouldn’t we have a temporary moratorium to take this relatively short pause to get this right? We have so much to gain!

Eric Bachrach lives in Amherst.