Guest column: What would Shutesbury get in return for this deal?


Thursday, April 22, 2021

AMP Energy, a Canadian solar developer, plans to build five large-scale industrial solar installations in Shutesbury on forest land leased from W.D. Cowls Inc. The project would involve the clear-cutting of about 190 acres, producing electrical generation for “the grid” — not specifically Shutesbury.

AMP wants the town to “partner” with it, by which AMP gains “public entity” status, enabling their receipt of millions in Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) funding, and subjects them to environmental regulations only after receiving those subsidies.

Currently, the developments would be ineligible for SMART funds as the land is more than 50% “BioMap2,” or a priority and core habitat and critical natural landscape. The state Department of Energy Resources confirms that the SMART program is not intended for commercial developers; it exists to benefit genuine communities and municipalities and is subsidized by residents via National Grid electric bill rates. Shutesbury would be paying for its own exploitation.

Shutesbury’s Select Board is being pressured by AMP/Cowls and by the town administrator, who is contrarily advocating for AMP, challenging our near-unanimously voter-approved 2020 solar bylaws rather than supporting them, inserting herself into the process before AMP has even filed applications.

The Select Board must insist on town employees’ impartiality; they must restrain their advocacy for such projects in advance of Conservation Commission and Planning Board reviews. Such advocacy pressures these boards to support development projects blindly, without careful consideration. The Select Board must defend the solar bylaws as they are the town’s expressed will and now models for the region, and require the town administrator to report on contacts with AMP and Cowls.

What would Shutesbury get in return for this “deal?” It gets a contract as the “hired help” in maintaining five enormous solar installations, something for which the town has no experience. AMP would pay Shutesbury a set yearly fee, and the town would have to hire skilled employees, paying salaries, benefits, and retirement costs — the latter a key point, as they extend far beyond the life of the proposed project or contract.

AMP’s set fee would most likely not cover those expenses, and far from gaining income, the town would be left paying for its own servitude to a foreign-based industirial enterprise. Shutesbury’s volunteer boards have more than enough to handle without such an unreasonable imposition. AMP/Cowls are pressing us, initially via legal threats, for quick approval and environmental waivers. Such a proposed “deal” for a town our size is unprecedented.

Shutesbury’s ecosystem would be damaged by stormwater runoff and flooding because slick solar panels disallow rain from entering the soil. A dire example is the continual flooding experienced by abutters to Shutesbury’s 22-acre Wheelock Tract solar installation in 2015. Imagine the results for 190 acres. The carbon sequestration provided by forests (trees and soil beneath) is vital to fight climate change.

The commercially promulgated idea cited by Cowls that “solar panels offset more carbon per acre than forests create per acre” is based on deceptive, unproven math. Contrary to such industrial bias, there are simply no accurate ways to measure sequestration. Indeed, according to a recent article in the authoritative science journal Nature, “The best strategy for managing forest carbon as a means of mitigating climate change is still a controversial issue.”

The DOER agrees: “Where a solar facility is sited, as well as placement on the site once selected, is an important consideration, particularly in regard to large-scale ground-mounted facilities. DOER strongly discourages locations that result in significant loss of land and natural resources, including farm and forest land, and encourages rooftop siting, as well as locations in industrial and commercial districts, or on vacant, disturbed land. Significant tree cutting is problematic because of the important water management, cooling, and climate benefits trees provide”

Saying “no” to this dangerous commercial “partnership” does not equate with rejecting solar projects; Shutesbury doesn’t even benefit from clean energy in the proposed arrangement. Developers must submit applications through standard review processes with the Planning Board. AMP states that unless it can build three or more installations, it is not interested; hence, its attempted end-run around the system.

AMP/Cowls’ proposal must be rejected. Please attend Shutesbury Select Board and Planning Board meetings: schedules can be found at www.shutesbury.org under “Calendar”; times are posted 48 hours in advance. Public comments at open meetings become part of the official record. It is also vital to write to: selectboard@shutesbury.org and planning@shutesbury.org.

Robert E. Seletsky, a Shutesbury resident, wrote this piece on behalf of the group Preserve Shutesbury. He is a retired musician, music historian, and widower of renowned environmental scientist Michael E. Miller.