Town Pulls The Plug On Solar Project At Wannacomet Water Company

Jason Graziadei •

Shutterstock 145369537
Image via Shutterstock

An initiative more than a decade in the making to build Nantucket's largest solar farm on the Wannacomet Water Company property off Milestone Road quietly came to an end this week.

The Select Board on Wednesday officially voted to back out of the project by terminating a lease agreement with Solar Star Tranquility - a subsidiary of the giant French energy company TotalEnergies - which had been selected in 2019 to develop the 3.8 megawatt, ground-mounted solar array. The vote on the "mutual termination agreement" went through without any discussion among the members of the Select Board.

Permitting challenges - specifically a determination last August by the state that the property was subject to an article of the Massachusetts Constitution that would have required state legislative approval - ultimately led to the project's downfall.

The solar farm had been in the works since 2011 when island voters at the Annual Town Meeting authorized a long-term lease of the property for 25 years through a power purchase agreement for the development of a solar array.

Wannacomet Water Company director Mark Willett said there is the potential to do a "smaller-scale" project at the property at some point in the future - specifically the possibility of putting solar panels on the roofs of water company buildings - but confirmed the original project, which would have been the largest solar array on the island, had come to an end.

"The size of the project is dead, but we're looking into doing something smaller scale, within Department of Environmental Protection regulations and what we can do in the well field," Willett said. "Being in the well field and being a protected property at the state level, it was always going to be a pretty big leap to get that in. So we're looking at doing some solar on the roofs, and maybe a small ground array to help offset energy use here."

The Solar Star Tranquility project would have included thousands of ground-mounted solar photovoltaic panels on two areas of the Wannacomet Water Company property totaling 10.10 acres. The town had hoped that over the 25-year lease of the property, the solar panels would have offset energy usage by the water company and the town while helping to reduce the peak electricity demand on the island during the summer and produce clean power that could offset as much as 86,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The layout of the proposed solar array at the Wannacomet Water Company property located between Milestone and Old South roads.

Despite support from island voters at two Annual Town Meetings (2011 and 2016), along with the endorsement of the Select Board and the Nantucket Water Commission, the project ran into unexpected headwinds due to the restrictive nature of the water company property.

As recently as last May, TotalEnergies representatives were telling the public that construction would begin in the fall of 2023. But that never happened.

In the two years prior, the Nantucket Land & Water Council (NLWC) had raised concerns about several policy implications of the project and asserted that it was subject to Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution. The article is intended to ensure that land purchased by municipalities for the conservation of natural resources cannot be used for other purposes without a two-thirds vote of the state legislature.

The NLWC's attorney wrote a legal opinion asserting the water company property was indeed subject to Article 97, while town counsel KP Law authored a conflicting opinion that it was not. In August 2023, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs stated that the property was subject to Article 97.

"This protection, which was bestowed upon the property when it was first transferred to the town, is incredibly important because this property lies directly above our public water supply well fields," NLWC executive director Emily Molden wrote following the state determination. "We were gravely concerned about how future uses could impact this site and our community water after the expiration of the 25-year lease for the proposed solar installation. Article 97 is in place to help us protect our right to clean water along with other natural resources. The long-term protection of this site and our public water supply must be a top priority for the town. Our community’s health and well-being depends on it."

That determination by the state posed "a substantial risk to the timely permitting, financing, and development of the solar project," according to the termination agreement between the town and TotalEnergies.

While the water company solar project is no more - at least for now - the town recently flipped the switch on a smaller, 232-panel solar array at the Surfside Wastewater Treatment Facility, and Bartlett's Farm has approximately seven acres of its land now converted to a functioning solar array. The number of private solar installations on Nantucket has also continued to grow:

Screen Shot 2024 03 08 at 12 50 02 AM
Loading Ad
Loading Ad
Loading Ad

Current News