Cost-saving Housatonic solar project to go online in JanuaryMore Info
Housatonic — On a 12-acre muddy brownfield behind the old Rising Paper Mill Company complex next to the Housatonic River, modernity is juxtaposed against the polluted past as a large solar farm is quickly being pieced together, poised to help both the environment and the beleaguered local taxpayer.
It’s also how solar developer Kirt Mayland makes his living. He says his 10,000 solar panels will be ready for action when his $6 million project is completed by the end of November. On January 1 the sun’s energy will hit the local power grid and start saving the Town of Great Barrington and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District somewhere between $70,000 and $90,000 each in annual electricity costs. Both entities signed contracts with Mayland for net metering, a process of buying and selling sustainably derived energy that is distributed to the electric company’s power grid and sold to “off takers” at a considerable discount. In this case it’s National Grid, and they’ve already installed new electric poles near the site to absorb the extra power.
A former environmental attorney and passionate fisherman who once worked for Trout Unlimited, Mayland bought 72 acres that includes the site and land around it for $350,000, and the old ballfield down the road for $150,000. As part of the project, he placed 46 acres into a permanent conservation restriction held by Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC). The remainder will be conservation land. There are plans to improve access to the river and create fishing trails. Mayland gave the old ballfield to BNRC, which Mayland suggested might be a good trailhead for the Flag Rock hiking trail that begins on the other side of Route 183.
The town’s 20-year tax agreement with Mayland’s Housatonic 1 Solar LLC, will also generate $70,000 per year in new property taxes.
Because the former landfill is overseen by MassDEP (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection), the panel foundations and all equipment had to be above ground, though there will be trenching for underground wiring. The panels will be set above flood elevation since the site is in the floodplain.
The land was essentially a private dump, Mayland said, where for years the paper company let people dump trash and household appliances like refrigerators. When the Neenah Paper company acquired it in 2013, the company spent around $1 million to clean it up. The solid waste was removed, but MassDEP doesn’t want the more polluted soils mixing with cleaner soils. A barrier at ground level that stretches across the site shows the division so the construction crews don’t mix the dirt. A licensed site provider (LSP) is on the site almost every day to make sure things are being done right, Mayland said.
“Whenever you work with a brownfield it’s a little scary,” he added, noting that he had to remove contaminated soils. “Seeing the dirt go kind of makes you feel good.”
When Mayland was in the process of buying the land, he walked the property with his dog and “noticed garbage sticking out of the riverbanks.” He called BNRC and MassDEP, who helped him sort through various issues, including the soil contamination and the endangered turtle habitat. Low soft fencing was installed as a turtle barrier, and also helps control erosion. While no one has seen any turtles yet, wildlife biologist and ecological consultant Suzanne Fowle is consulting with Mayland at the site to make sure precautions are taken.
The project is mostly a local endeavor. Sheffield’s Joe Wilkinson Excavating is doing site preparations, and all the work will be done by Massachusetts-based companies, Mayland said. He recently developed an old 21-acre sand pit in Sheffield for clean energy investor, Altus Power America. He is getting ready to build another array at the AmeriGas facility on Van Deusenville Rd., also in Housatonic, and one at the Great Barrington Fairground property off Route 7.
Ed Dunn, Altus’ Project manager for Mayland’s project at Rising Paper, was at the site this week. “It’s a good neighbor,” he said, gesturing to the rows of racking. “It’s quiet and silent and it’s making you money. It’s a win-win for the community and the environment, a secure sanctuary for endangered species. You don’t get that everyday in a neighbor.
“A lot of people complain about wind [turbines],” Dunn adds. “They say not in my backyard with solar. Do you want to go back to the smokestacks? I’d rather look at this. This is the beginning of making America free again.”
Like Dunn, Mayland also says there isn’t a downside. “The community is getting clean energy, $230,000 [annually] in money that was not there before, a lot of conservation land, and public access for fishing and kayaking on the river.”