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Hinsdale solar project shines light on deficiencies in NH renewable policies

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Editor's Note: This article was updated to remove incorrect information on New Hampshire's participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

HINSDALE, N.H. — More than 30 years ago, Bob Harcke and Mike Renaud bought hundreds of acres off of Monument Road in the hopes industry might come to town.

"We spent a lot of years trying to market this location for manufacturing," said Harcke, 78, during a visit to the site of the proposed Chariot Solar Project that will be situated on 500 acres straddling Lipscombe Brook. "The town created the [tax increment financing] district, and in the '90s we bought the land. To be honest, I would have done a lot better if I had invested in the stock market."

Harcke, who lives in Westmoreland but spends his winters in Florida, moved his business, Continental Cable, from Connecticut to Monument Road in Hinsdale in the mid-1970s because he liked the "Live Free or Die" business climate of the Granite State. In 2006, Harcke sold the business to Ben-Mor Cables in Quebec.

Even zoned for commercial and industrial use, and with tax increment financing, which allows municipalities to use some of the taxes from new developments to pay off infrastructure bonds to support projects bringing economic development to a town, businesses didn't come to the district.

"This land was set aside to be a revenue producer for the town," said Harcke. "Right now, the town is getting nothing."

That appears ready to change. By the middle of November, NextEra will present to New Hampshire's Site Evaluation Committee its plan for a 50-megawatt solar farm on property currently held by private landowners in the commercial/industrial district on both sides of Lipscombe Brook.

"This project has been in the works since 2016," wrote Town Administrator Jill Collins in an email to the Reformer, with a number of public hearings over the years.

Five years ago, the major landholders in the business district were approached by Ranger Solar, a Maine-based renewables company, which was interested in establishing a 65-megawatt solar farm in the business park. At the time, the project was estimated to cost $50 million and would have created 185 jobs during construction.

Ranger was eventually bought out by NextEra Energy, which also owns New Hampshire's only nuclear power plant in Seabrook, but not before a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreement was accepted by the Hinsdale Board of Selectmen in 2017, guaranteeing the town $12 million over the first 20 years of operation.

According to the PILOT agreement, the payments start at $162,500 at the time of construction, gradually increasing to nearly $470,000 by the last year of the contract. In addition, the town will receive a 10 percent payment as a result of the state’s land use change tax, based on the market value of the land when it is taken out of current use.

At a public hearing held on Oct. 18, representatives from NextEra said the region will receive an additional $28 million in economic benefits, mostly during the construction of the more than 10 arrays that will be sited on different parcels in the district.

Even though some of the land will need to be cleared of trees, said Dan Weeks, the vice president of business development for ReVision Energy, which is located in Enfield and designs and installs residential and small-scale solar arrays, the project will have a net benefit for the environment.

"The carbon offset of one acre of solar panels is roughly the same as 100 acres of forest," he said.

A conforming use

Because the project is a conforming use under Hinsdale's zoning ordinance, the town has very little role in its licensing. NextEra was in Hinsdale on Oct. 18 because a public hearing is required 30 days in advance of any applicant presenting its project to the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, which has final say over the location of a power generating facility in the state.

If the SEC approves the application, construction will begin in late 2022, and the array will start producing electricity a year later, selling its 50 megawatts to a number of communities in Massachusetts, which have already signed power purchase agreements with NextEra.

Since the Oct. 18 meeting, a number of people have taken to social media, expressing opposition to the project, concerned about the environmental impact and expressing a sentiment that the meeting wasn't adequately warned. Others are concerned about the loss of farmland and forest in the project area, as well as the loss of ATV trails in the area.

One person has started an online petition to bring the matter to a vote during town meeting, but because the project is a conforming use of private property in a commercial/industrial zone, a vote would only be advisory, said Collins.

"If they have a different use for this, anybody could buy this property," said Renaud, of Renaud Brothers Construction in Vernon, Vt. "They could have bought it 30 years ago."

Harcke and Renaud purchased about 250 acres of the land in the business park as a partnership, though Harcke owns more of the land on his own. The two men got to know each other after Renaud did some contracting work for Harcke. They both also share an interest in aviation.

"This is still America," said Renaud. "If you own a piece of land, you ought to be able to do what you want with it."

 As far as the loss of ag land is concerned, Renaud scoffed.

"We offered the field off of Monument Road to a farmer and he didn't want anything to do with it," he said. "He wouldn't even take it for free."

Another 50 acre parcel that will be sold if the SEC approves the plan has been in the family of Edwin "Smokey" Smith since the early 1900s.

"One of the common threads I've seen [on social media] is that the town is not getting anything out of this," said Smith, who served nine terms in the New Hampshire State Legislature. "With the PILOT agreement, the town will be getting $12 million. That's something."

Steve Diorio, the current chairman of the Board of Selectmen, was a board member when Ranger first approached him about renting some of his property, which has been in his family for 50 years, for one of the solar arrays. 

"This district was set up for use by some sort of business," said Diorio, who noted he recused himself whenever matters related to the project came before the board.

Diorio said the board is willing to listen to people who might might be opposed to the project.

"But I'm not opposed to this project," he said, "as long as they follow the rules laid out in the zoning ordinance and in state regulations."

Power not meant for Hinsdale

The project calls for a number of separate locations for banks of solar panels, each location fenced in with a six-inch gap at the ground for small animals to cross the sites. Wildlife will be able to travel along Lipscombe Brook and in between the solar arrays by design, said Bryan Garner, director of communications and marketing for NextEra, during the Oct. 18 meeting.

"This project is developed around the land," he said. "We avoided wetlands. We avoided sensitive areas."

The location was originally chosen by Ranger because it has a powerline running through it, a powerline that once carried some of the 650 megawatts produced by the now-shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant just across the river in Vernon.

NextEra, which owns the Seabrook nuclear power plant and is the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun, also developed the Chinook Solar Project, a 30-megawatt array in Fitzwilliam, N.H. A PILOT program agreement was signed with the town, guaranteeing an average of $300,000 a year to Fitzwilliam. The energy from that project is also going to communities in Massachusetts, as well as in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Mike Darcy, who was a member of the Board of Selectmen during the negotiation of the PILOT agreement, said he's not surprised that towns in Massachusetts will be getting the power.

"The incentives to incorporate more green energy are less in New Hampshire than in other states," he said, noting it's up to the State Legislature to make solar power more attractive in the Granite State.

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"In Massachusetts, the power companies are required to purchase more renewables than in New Hampshire," said Nick Krakoff, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire. "Policies in New Hampshire are a disincentive to selling renewables here."

The Granite State as an outlier

In March 2017, Massachusetts issued a request for proposal, soliciting 20-year contracts to generate about 9.5 terawatts per year from renewable energy.

According to the New Hampshire Business Review, by the end of July 2017, the bid request attracted 46 bids from as far away as New York and Canada, including 1,800 megawatts from wind projects in Maine and 280 megawatts from a wind project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Seven solar projects in that bid totaled 170 megawatts, which includes both the Chinook and the Chariot projects.

Six other solar arrays in New Hampshire proposed by SunEast Development will also send power to Massachusetts and another NextEra project in Concord will supply 10 megawatts to customers in Connecticut.

Massachusetts has legislated that by 2030, 40 percent of all power provided to the state must come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and small-scale hydro, and 80 percent by 2050. Around New England, Maine's goal for renewable energy usage is 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050; Connecticut's goal is 48 percent by 2030; Rhode Island's is 38.5 percent by 2035; and Vermont is targeting 75 percent in 2032.

In New Hampshire, the number to reach is 25 percent by 2025.

And while Massachusetts doesn't set a cap on the source of the power, New Hampshire limits solar's piece of the pie to .7 percent.

A "clean energy bill" vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu in July 2020 would have increased the renewable standard to 57 percent in 2040, and raised the cap on solar to almost 20 percent.

When Sununu vetoed the bill, he stated it represented "a handout" to the state's nascent solar industry, subsidized by customers paying for energy from non-renewable sources.

In actuality, said Weeks, New Hampshire subsidizes power generators outside of the state.

"We send out about $5 billion a year to import non-renewable energy," he said. "If we could cut down on that and invest more in our communities by generating renewable power locally, it would have a lot of benefit."

Many of the benefits without the commitment

Krakoff said Massachusetts and the other New England states have created a market that basically doesn't exist in New Hampshire and they will compete for the power from whoever is producing it, wherever they are producing it.

Krakoff said he doesn't see things changing in New Hampshire under the current administration, but the state still benefits from projects like Chariot Solar, even if they aren't getting the electricity.

He noted communities receive taxes and payments in lieu of taxes and hundreds of jobs are created during construction.

"And even if the power is getting sold to customers in Massachusetts, it's really going into the regional energy mix," said Krakof.

So while New Hampshire is not as dedicated as its neighbors in reducing its carbon footprint, it benefits from the efforts of its neighbors, who are creating jobs in the Granite State while reducing regional greenhouse gas emissions.

New Hampshire also lags behind its neighboring states in the installation of solar power generators. Less than 1 percent of the power produced in the Granite State, about 123 megawatts, comes from solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Vermont produces nearly 385 megawatts from solar power, enough for 67,661 homes according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and Massachusetts is producing more than 2,800 megawatts, enough to power 500,000 homes.

"It's a rather ironic," said Bob Hayden, the president and chief technical officer of Standard Power, which helps municipalities, including Hinsdale, purchase power at a competitive price. "A state that in large part is known as a beautiful, inviting place to live, work and play is not a leader in renewables that would help to maintain those things."

The demand is there

This doesn't mean there is little interest in solar power in the Granite State, said Weeks.

"More and more municipalities and organizations are making commitments to doing their part, even if the state government is not doing its part," he said.

ReVision Energy has worked on more than 10,000 projects since 2003, including an 860 kilowatt roof-top system for the Fairgrounds Middle School and the Dr. Crisp Elementary School in Nashua, the first public schools in New Hampshire to meet 100 percent of their annual electricity needs from solar.

"Those schools get more power than they need," said Weeks. "As a consequence, they are sending their excess to the utilities at 8 cents and the utility is selling the power for between 18 and 20 cents to the neighboring towns."

Weeks applauded recent legislation that allowed municipalities and nonprofits to increase their project sizes from 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts, but even that came with a limitation that arrays be sited in the same communities that will receive the energy.

"Most of New Hampshire's 230 towns don't have nearly enough load to go beyond 1 megawatt," he said. "And the cities that do don't always have enough land to site solar arrays. We tried hard to get the state to allow at least adjacent towns to host solar farms, but we were not successful. The only thing hampering the growth of renewables in New Hampshire while all of our neighboring states have taken of is our policy." 

Debunking myths about solar

Weeks also addressed some of the misinformation about solar power, such as New Hampshire, being in a higher latitude, is not a great location for solar farms.

"Is it as productive as a solar array at the equator? No," he said. "But it's sufficiently productive to be a major source of net power to the region."

Weeks also noted that solar panels are warrantied to lose only .5 percent efficiency a year.

"We have solar panels that are 40 years old and they are still putting out about 80 percent," he said.

While ReVision doesn't purchase any panels from China, most of its panels come from three countries — Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea.

Solar panel factories are opening in the United States, he said, but they are still not producing enough panels to meet the demand.

"This transition needs to happen a lot more quickly if we are serious about addressing climate change," said Weeks.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.

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