Guest columnist Jill Buchanan: Trying to muscle big solar into Shutesbury forestland

By JILL BUCHANAN

Published: 06-12-2023 11:57 AM

Massachusetts is moving faster than just about anywhere in the country to implement a clean energy economy, with the intention of adding as many as 2.5 million solar panels across the state in the next 20 years. While we need to act promptly, the current extremely rapid pace of implementation is leading to exploitative practices that could set us back — or even reverse — our progress toward climate resilience.

Sadly, we are already seeing this play out as the multinational energy company AMP Energy and large landowner W.D. Cowls use outdated laws to sue a municipality in pursuit of industrial solar development that would clear-cut hundreds of acres of important forest.

Ironically and tragically, the whole purpose of implementing solar — to reduce our carbon footprint — will be undermined if we cut down our very best tools for large-scale carbon storage and sequestration: forests. National and international experts insist that forest protection must be central to any climate change solution.

At a packed Special Town Meeting in January, Shutesbury residents voted nearly unanimously to approve a comprehensive solar bylaw that introduces safety requirements for batteries in ground-mounted solar electric installations. The intention of the bylaw was to protect our critical water resources from lithium-ion battery contamination and degradation by flooding, erosion, and sedimentation, which are likely consequences of clear-cutting for solar development. The site of the proposed project poses a particularly high risk as it is a 1,200-foot mountain whose watershed runs into aquifers that serve as residents sole source of drinking water and flows into a major reservoir that provides drinking water to Amherst.

Yet, despite this resounding vote, on April 3, AMP and Cowls filed a lawsuit against Shutesbury, claiming that the new bylaw unreasonably restricts the companies’ ability to develop their industrial solar installations in the town.

The significance of this lawsuit cannot be overstated — it’s likely to determine the fate of many rural Massachusetts communities for many years to come.

To make their case, AMP and Cowls are using an outdated law known as the “Dover Amendment” to argue that municipalities are “unreasonably” applying zoning regulations to prevent solar development. This legislation, which was last updated in 1985 — long before the current boom in industrial solar projects — was originally intended to encourage rooftop and small-scale solar projects. Now it is being exploited by AMP, Cowls and other energy industry developers to prevent towns from supporting reasonable, community-appropriate approaches.

The current AMP/Cowls lawsuit against Shutesbury will be the first time since the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on the “Dover Amendment” last year that developers have used the argument to try to push through large-scale clear-cutting of forests for solar development in a small, rural municipality.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Northampton woman nominated for superior court judgeship
Dearth of judges causing court bottleneck in Hampshire Superior Court, across state
Two die in Thursday crashes in Northampton, Westhampton
Belchertown man dies in crash; third such death in Hampshire County in three-day period
Valley Green Energy, a new electricity service, is coming to Northampton, Amherst, Pelham this fall
Chance Encounters with Bob Flaherty :Weedbusters keep paradise going

We must not allow these wealthy corporate bullies, whose primary goal is profit, not climate solutions, to negate the laws democratically passed by our communities. Doing so will embolden them and others like them to ignore local laws in any rural community and pursue aggressive clear-cutting of thousands of acres of forests for solar development throughout the state and beyond.

The two companies already have two large-scale projects on deck in neighboring Amherst and Pelham.

The solution must take several forms. An important immediate step is for individuals to support two state bills that ensure local regulation of solar (H.3230 and S.2164). Smart Solar Shutesbury will also be hosting a forum on June 26 at 7 p.m. to provide details about the current situation, the larger implications and more actions individuals can take. Find out more about how you can support the legislation, attend the event, and sign up for our mailing list by visiting Smartsolarshutesbury.org.

This article was corrected on June 12 to remove a reference to AMP being fined for environmental damage caused by a solar installation in Williamsburg. A different contractor was responsible for that project. A second reference to an AMP-run project in Duanesburg, New York, was also removed.

Jill Buchanan lives in Shutesbury and is an organizer for Smart Solar Shutesbury.

]]>