City’s first two solar farms get green light to start construction

City’s first two solar farms get green light to start construction

WOONSOCKET – The city’s first two commercial solar farms are due to start construction after the Zoning Board approved both applications on Monday.

Direct Energy Solar, a division of UK-based energy company Centrica, and the Woonsocket-based Singleton Group both expect to begin construction within the next few months pending permits from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The projects, submitted separately, are the first two commercial solar farms approved in the city.

Both projects will take advantage of former industrial space along the city’s riverfront. The first, an approximately 900-kilowatt solar farm located at 85 Fairmount St., will be built on the site of the former Alice Mills. Since the mill burned down in 2011, the land has remained undeveloped and currently serves as a holding ground for unused school busses awaiting their turn at auction.

“Given the nature of this property, what existed previously, the environmental issues, this is a great use of the property,” said Marlene Marshall, an attorney for the project.

Marshall and other project representatives explained how the property is currently under a land use restriction from the RIDEM that limits what kind of development can take place on the site. Though the former mill property was capped to prevent the spread of environmental hazards, solar, they explained, was one of the few uses allowed under the present condition.

Zoning Board members voted 4-1 to approve a special use permit and variance on fence height for the project. Board member Richard Monteiro voted against due to concerns that a transformer on the property could present a hazard to neighborhood kids who might jump the fence to explore. Monteiro argued the transformer should have its own separate fence, but his concerns failed to gain the support of fellow board members.

Charles Kovicic, a representative for Centrica, said the company hopes to break ground on the project by March and have it up and running in mid-summer. The company is under a 20-year lease with option to renew with landowner Mizner Holdings.

Immediately after approving the first solar farm, board members took up an application by the Singleton Group, a real estate group associated with the Woonsocket-based Brickle Group. The 250-kilowatt solar farm will be located on a vacant parcel across from 235 Singleton St., where the Brickle Group operates a textile manufacturing facility.

Like the first solar farm, this farm will take advantage of vacant space on the banks of the Blackstone River in an area traditionally used for manufacturing. In this case, a newly-built branch of the Blackstone River Bikeway will separate the farm from the river on its western side.

Like the previous application, the company asked the board to grant a variance allowing for a shorter fence than currently required by city regulations. While the current ordinance calls for a nine-foot fence around the entire project, a newer ordinance is currently under consideration that only calls for a seven-foot fence. The newer fence height, company representatives explained, is in line with state regulations.

Board members voted 5-0 to approve the project. Smed Blair, vice president of the Brickle Group, said the company hopes to begin construction within the next few weeks to take advantage of a federal tax credit that expires at the end of 2019. If all goes according to schedule, he said, the project could go online by February of 2020.