by Jeffrey B. Roth
Advocates of a proposed 180-day moratorium on commercial solar projects say the move is needed to allow the Blue Hill Planning Board time to either amend the town’s existing commercial site plan review ordinance to address commercial solar projects or to draft a separate commercial solar ordinance. A special referendum vote on the proposed moratorium is set for Wednesday, February 17, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the George Stevens Academy gym.
Late last fall, Blue Hill Solar LLC and Borrego Solar submitted a commercial site plan review application to the planning board for the development of a 19.7-acre commercial solar farm on a 50.76 acre wooded lot on York Road in East Blue Hill owned by the Dethier family. During the November meeting, the board found that the application was incomplete and instructed the developers to resubmit an updated application.
During a November 30 special planning board meeting, members voted to recommend that the select board draft and adopt the moratorium because at the time there were rumors that a number of commercial solar-farm developers were considering projects in Blue Hill.
If passed by voters, the moratorium would “govern and apply to all proceedings and applications for a Commercial Solar Facility that were or are pending before the Code Enforcement Officer or the Planning Board on or any time after December 17, 2020,” which would delay any formal planning board ruling on the Blue Hill Solar LLC York Road project.
The draft moratorium ordinance states the town’s ordinances “are insufficient to prevent serious public harm that could result from the siting, installation, and operation of Commercial Solar Facilities within the Town ” [and] “raises legitimate and substantial questions about the impact of such facilities on the Town, including questions as to compatibility of such facilities with existing and permitted land uses in the Town; potential adverse environmental effects; and the lack of plans and other financial assurances that such facilities will be properly constructed and decommissioned .”
During the February 8 meeting of the planning board, members discussed whether the Versant substation, which serves Blue Hill, has sufficient transmission capacity to handle large-scale commercial solar power generating installations. In August 2020, Versant Power replaced its 50-year-old substation located at the bottom of Greene’s Hill with a new facility near Turkey Farm Road.
“Our brand new substation transformer is built to handle up to 5.5MW of power flowing out to customers,” Mary Alice Hurvitt, chair of the planning board, stated in a letter to The Weekly Packet. “This also represents the limit of the power that we can feed back into the substation. One 20-30 acre solar farm could generate as much as 5.5MW. What we have learned is that once our threshold is reached, no other inputs can be added without further upgrades to our substation. Meaning, if we use up all our capacity, we as individuals may no longer be able to put solar panels on our houses or install panels for our businesses.”
Hurvitt emphasized that board members are not anti-solar energy. The purpose of the moratorium is not to discourage commercial solar projects, she noted, adding that the board has questions about safety issues, the potential impact on the environment and related concerns.
“I learned that Tradewinds was [dissuaded] from installing solar on their Blue Hill building because of the town’s limited grid capacity; other developers, at least one of them from out-of-state, are in line before the Lawrences,” Blue Hill resident Nina Fleming stated in a letter to the Packet. “In other words, the solar boom has already impacted local business. There is currently no plan to upgrade the infrastructure before 2050.”
Andrew Kahrl, solar design specialist with Revision Energy, who prepared the Versant Energy Level II solar project application on behalf of Chuck and Belinda Lawrence, owners of Tradewinds, said in a Tuesday evening telephone interview that Versant did not deny the Tradewinds Level II application, which required a review fee of about $1,000. Instead, the utility company said that due to the size of the proposed project, Tradewinds would have to pay a $3,000 fee to submit a Level IV application.
“Our determination was that the substation was fully subscribed,” Kahrl said. “So in this case, they had another facility in Holden, with a much higher likelihood of getting a successful interconnect agreement with Versant. We decided not to file a Level IV for Blue Hill .”