Big solar project proposed for Franklin

Last modified: 6/28/2015 10:09:23 PM
For the past half century, two plots of land along River Street in Franklin have been used to grow feed for Daniel Webster Farm. The land could soon have a new purpose – one that would usher in a new era for the city.

The land is among the sites of a major solar development, that if approved, would be larger than all of New Hampshire’s current installed capacity combined.

The seven community solar garden projects throughout the city would total 8.5 megawatts. That’s more than the total megawatts of residential and commercial solar projects installed across the Granite State in the past seven years. And it’s more than eight times the size of the state’s current largest solar development in Peterborough.

Andrew Keller of New Hampshire Solar Gardens, the company responsible for the projects in Franklin, said each proposed project in Franklin is 1.2 megawatts, which is capable of powering about 150 homes.

New Hampshire has 8 megawatts of solar energy currently installed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Community solar gardens allow for shared energy through group net metering, which is in place after the passing of a state law in 2013. Group net metering allows for the sharing of proceeds from surplus electricity generation among group members. The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission was responsible for establishing rules to correspond with the law, which were finalized in January.

It has taken the last two years “to take it from a signed law to something that is functional in the marketplace,” he said.

“We’ve definitely had energy instability in our state,” Keller said. “This is one component to the solution we see.”

The community solar gardens and group net metering allow communities to generate a new source of income, utilize their land and create a new tax base.

“It’s kind of a trifecta scenario for these towns,” he said.

Each solar garden has a potential group savings of about $14,000 a year, according to New Hampshire Solar Gardens.

The two pieces of land on River Street were approved as sites for solar gardens at a Franklin Planning Board meeting Wednesday night. The other five project sites were approved at a meeting last month.

The planning board gave further consideration to the two River Street sites because of opposition from Dan Fife, who uses that land to grow corn to feed his cattle. Fife has had a lease for the land for decades and is concerned about the community’s potential loss of farmland.

“For me personally, it’s not a do or die,” he said. “It’s not a personal issue as much as the opportunity in the future for the citizens of Franklin. . . . There’s very short supply of prime farmland.”

Fife read a letter in support of preserving the land, before the planning board approved the use of the land for solar gardens Wednesday.

“Who is to know what the needs will be in 50 years. This farmland should be available to grow fruits and vegetables for the citizens of Franklin. Don’t throw away that,” he said.

Franklin City Manager Elizabeth Dragon and Keller said that it is possible for Fife to continue using a portion of that land and to build the solar project.

“Our intent has always been to commingle among other mixed uses,” Keller said. “There’s got to be some give and take here.”

Of the about 70 acres on the two plots, Fife uses about 20 acres for farming. The solar panels would cut that space in half, leaving him with about 10 acres for his crops.

“We hope to find a compromise that will allow some continued agricultural use of property, however, we weren’t guaranteeing that,” Dragon said. The city wants to allow him time to find other property, if needed, Dragon said. His lease is through November 2015.

Fife’s lease for the current farmland brings the city $850 a year, Dragon said. The solar garden lease for the two sites will be for $40,000, she said.

The solar gardens do not do much damage to the land, Keller said. The solar panels will be installed with a “kind of a glorified fence post,” said Keller.

“We’re not adding nutrients, but we’re not depleting it,” he said. “But absolutely it could be used again.”

The planning board’s role, however, is not to deem whether the land will better serve the community as farmland or as a solar garden. Its role is to determine if the use is allowed by city policy.

“We’re not really supposed to get in the business of telling any property owner – whether that’s the city itself or anybody – if they want to change how they use their land to another use, and it’s allowed by land use regulations. That’s not within our realm here. So we should just be looking at the site plan itself,” said planning board member Brian Colburn.

If city council approves the project in July, Keller said the next step will be to work with Eversource Energy to complete impact study engineering to learn what the cost would be to interconnect the arrays at each site. The goal would be to construct the solar gardens before the end of the year, he said.

The next Franklin City Council meeting is July 6 at 6 p.m.

(Susan Doucet can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter @susan_doucet.)

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