Plans to develop a 7.3 megawatt solar farm underwent another round of questioning from the Falmouth Planning Board on Tuesday, June 6. Concerns about town liability and security dominated the conversation.
The project will be the first of its kind within the town’s new solar overlay district. The system will be split between two parcels totaling 69 acres off of Blacksmith Shop Road, owned by Lawrence Lynch Corp. Until recently, the location was used to mine sand and gravel.
Since board members last saw the site plan on May 14, it underwent minimal changes. Zak Farkes, a project developer for Borrego Solar, explained that the number of poles located in the center of the project had increased to 10. He noted that the additional poles will not impact the view of the project from the public way due to their location.
Borrego has been in discussion with town counsel about access to an easement onto the Blacksmith Shop Road. The town owns neighboring property that incorporates part of the site’s driveway. Town planner Thomas Bott said that the board of selectmen could grant a license for access that could then be turned into an official easement through a town meeting vote.
“The thing that I have asked them to do is take that entrance drive and bring it up to a subdivision standard for the first 200 or so feet,” Mr. Bott said.
Planning board member John Druley asked several questions about decommissioning the solar farm if it becomes unprofitable or ownership of the property changes. Mr. Druley expressed doubts that the town would be protected from bearing cost of decommissioning the system if it is ever abandoned.
“The town’s bylaw is very clear that a decommissioning bond needs to be put in place,” Mr. Farkes explained. The sum of that bond covers the cost of removing the solar array the same day it is installed. The bond escalates by two percent for ever year the solar farm remains operational, he added. The practical lifetime of the project is 20 years, he said.
“That bond runs with the land. It basically sits there and it needs to be renewed each year,” Mr. Farkes said.
“Obviously the big fear is that solar goes upside down and there’s this rotting carcass of a project up there for years. [The bond] affords the town access to funds to call upon to remove the project if I default on my obligation to remove it,” he explained.
“In the event of any type of default between Borrego and Lynch there are curative measures in the lease... There is no opportunity for the town to step in and take ownership of the facility in any scenario,” he said. He also noted that it was “unlikely” that the town would get involved in decommissioning the system before Lawrence Lynch Corp. would.
Mr. Farkes added that the decommissioning bond was a “backup” because Borrego Solar intends to live up to its obligations.
Mr. Druley asked what would happen if solar became unprofitable.
“It turns on and it operates for 20 years with no fueling costs, minimal operations and maintenance costs, and minimal staffing costs,” Mr. Farkes said. The project requires a large upfront cost from the developer, he explained, which means that the company has an interest in keeping the solar farm operational to recoup that cost. “We’re not doing it to break even. We’re doing it to make a profit,” Mr. Farkes said.
Mr. Druley asked whether Borrego Solar had decommissioned a system before. Mr. Farkes said that after operating in Massachusetts for over 10 years, the company had not needed to decommission a system. The oldest systems they have installed are only approaching their half-life.
Mr. Druley also expressed concerns over safety and security. The site plan shows three- to six-foot depressions where water can pool in the event of a storm. The depressions are designed to drain within 72 hours in accordance with the town’s 25-year storm requirements. The entire site will be surrounded by a seven-foot chain-link fence, according to the designs.
Mr. Druley said that there had been an accident a few years ago involving children and pool of water. “A small runoff water drainage area had frozen over and a couple of children thought they could walk across it and didn’t make it,” Mr. Druley said. He expressed concern that the same accident could repeat itself and said that a seven-foot-high fence was not enough of a deterrent for keeping children aware from the solar farm.
Separate fences could not be installed around the depressions, Mr. Farkes said, but he agreed to work with the town planner to come up with plans for additional signage.
The planning board instructed planning department staff to work on a favorable decision.