Great Road solar project winning town's approval

Great Road solar project winning town's approval

NORTH SMITHFIELD - The town's first large-scale green energy project is expected to begin construction next month, with Boston-based NextSun Energy installing around 150 solar panels along a property on Great Road.

The company, which has a variety of ongoing solar projects in New England, New York and Colorado, has leased 4.7 acres from Sam-Man Realty Corp., a company that shares ownership with wool-makers The Brickle Group. Sam-Man owns some 175 acres along the road and last year created the roughly 25 acre lot where the solar farm will be located.

"Much of the land is floodplain, which means you can't build there," said Town Planner Robert Ericson. "This is very creative use of the land."

National Grid has already agreed to purchase energy from the solar farm from NextSun for the next 15 years. In total, the estimated 150 4- by 8-foot panels are expected to produce 1.1 megawatts.

The plan received preliminary approval from the town's Planning Board this week, and must now obtain a Special Use Permit from the Zoning Board of Review, along with all required approvals from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Ericson says that process could move along fairly quickly. NextSun is expected to go before the Zoning Board Feb. 11, and officials have said they hope to begin construction five days after the special use permit is issued. The project does not require approval from the Town Council.

The solar farm will be situated behind the floodplains in an area not likely to be visible from nearby Route 146 or Great Road. Ericson said residents may be able to glimpse the project from adjoining Branch Road.

Neither construction nor maintenance are expected to be very intrusive. The property will be accessed from a back entrance, in the same area where Brickle employees access the company's 475,000-square-foot textile and recycling plant on the adjoining lot. Panels will be mounted on steel poles pushed into the ground during the three-month building process, and after the initial construction, no heavy equipment will be required. The project uses photovoltaic panels, which generate electrical power by converting solar radiation into direct current electricity using semiconductors.

"That's why they call them solar 'farms,'" said Ericson. "They don't require much more access or maintenance than the average farm field."

NextSun was established in Boston in 2010, and has completed large scale solar projects in Fall River, Littleton and Douglas, Mass.

The company has signed a 25-year lease on the land, and according to Smed Blair, vice president of real estate and development for Sam-Man Realty, his company will purchase the electricity for the 10 years after the National Grid contract runs out.

"We can apply it toward any part of our business that we want. We use a lot of electricity, so that's going to be a great benefit for us," Blair said.

Blair declined to release the price he'll be paying for the 1.1 megawatts of solar power, but said it was at a fantastic discount. The average household uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours a year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Four evenings of television watching consumes about one kilowatt hour, according to industry sources.

The property's industrial past, proximity to the Branch River, and abundance of power lines make solar panels not only a good plan for the large property, but possibly the only feasible use of the land, the town planner suggests.

"You can't put anything else there," Ericson explained.