Planning Board, expert rain on solar’s environmental record

Dec 13, 2022

Representatives of the proposed solar farms at 0 Route 25, 27 Charge Pond Road and 150 Tihonet Road received a rude awakening from the Planning Board at Monday, Dec. 12’s meeting.

The Board, along with environmental consultant Scott Horsley and members of the public who spoke at the meeting, were not impressed with promises made about the environmental friendliness of the solar panels and their ability to be recycled after they can no longer generate power. 

In a presentation delivered via Zoom, Horsley, who has 30 years of experience in water resource management, said that replacing the forest at 0 Route 25 with solar panels would create a “heat island effect,” increasing the temperature of the area. It would also decrease the amount of water that is evaporated by the sun and through plants, and increase the amount of water that seeps into the ground. Opponents of the solar farm are concerned that the panels will leak harmful chemicals such as PFAs and cadmium telluride into the groundwater. 

Jon Klavens of Klavens Law Group, representing the Wareham PV 1, LLC solar company, said that there were no PFAs in the panels, and that cadmium telluride “does not pose a significant risk to the groundwater.”

Klavens said that the layer of cadmium telluride present in the panels is thinner than a strand of human hair, and sandwiched between two “durable” sheets of glass. He added that cadmium telluride is not as toxic as pure cadmium and cannot be dissolved in water.

“It will not break down even in hundreds of degrees of temperature,” he said. 

In response, Horsley said that their report only addressed one type of PFAs, and that other types may still be in the panels. He chastised the representatives for not doing their own assessment of the groundwater where the panels would be built, and their argument that since such an assessment was done on the site of the Fearing Hill solar farm, they did not have to do their own. Horsley said that he had never heard such an argument in his entire career. 

If Wareham PV 1, LLC wants their solar farm to become a reality, he said, the company would have to extensively test the level and quality of the groundwater to comply with Wareham’s zoning and site plan review requirements. They would also have to assess whether or not the increased stormwater runoff would lead to mounds of water forming underground, which could threaten nearby basements or septic tanks. 

Horsley warned them to think about the monetary and environmental costs of decommissioning the solar panels when they become obsolete — $230,493 per megawatt, according to one estimate. Klavens promised that the solar farm would make a commitment to recycle all of the panels. 

“The point is that those things are going to be sitting in a disposal site for decades,” he said. “These things are going to be around forever.”

Planning Board Member Sam Corbitt said that the representatives of 0 Route 25 had the most “appropriate” location of all of the proposed solar farms, but was concerned about the ultimate fate of the obsolete panels.

“Yours to my knowledge is the best one yet,” he said. “Doesn’t mean it’s right.”

The Planning Board had similar criticisms for representatives of Borrego’s proposed solar farms at 27 Charge Pond Road and 150 Tihonet Road. 

In response to the Board’s previous requests, Jared Connell of New Leaf Energy updated the farms’ plan and costs for decommissioning 20,000 solar panels, and provided the Board with detailed descriptions of how they arrived at the numbers they did.

Vice Chair Carl Schulz feared that the project would “collapse” due to the high costs.

The proposal of taking 1.3 million pounds of solar equipment to the Wareham Recycling Center was met with laughter from the public and disbelief from the Planning Board. King called it “insane.”

“That would just destroy the facility,” he added. 

Connell’s documents estimated the cost of decommission at 56 cents per panel, and that it would take one minute for workers to remove each panel.

To that, King simply replied “Don’t see it, don’t believe it.”

“The tricky thing here is that very little is known about decommissioning and what things cost,” said Associate Member Sherry Quirk, “and the sheer magnitude of the panels that need to be disposed of.” 

The panels, she said, could become hazardous waste in the near future. Quirk did not want to put the town “in financial peril” due to lack of knowledge about the situation.

“My sense is that we need some expert help here,” she said. “Over time, our sense of the danger of this may lessen... But at this point, it looks like a very large potential liability for the town.”

Connell sought an extension of time for the public hearing about the proposed farms, but in order to get the extension, they must provide a “good cause” for it.

“I don’t feel like his definition of good cause and my definition of good cause meet,” Planning Board Chairman Michael King said.

The Board voted to consult the Town Counsel on what to do next. 

“Unfortunately we have to make our decisions based on worst-case scenarios,” Quirk told Connell. “We’ve seen tremendous upheaval in the energy business over the years and we don’t know where this is going.”