By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
NORTH SMITHFIELD – With the Planning Board’s final approval in hand, Green Development, LLC, has begun building a massive 38-megawatt solar power generating array at a more than 400-acre site off Iron Mine Hill Road, Greenville Road and Route 146.
Members of the planning board and town conservation commission made a visit to the property atop what is known locally as Whortleberry Hill to see the remains of a historic farmhouse and other significant areas of the solar farm property identified for preservation by the planners in their decision.
The board members were taken on the tour by Green staff members and the company’s founder and president, Mark DePasquale. Members of the public and the media were not allowed on the tour for now due to concerns over liability at the work site.
In all, about 185 acres of the property will be cleared of forest growth and graded, and the array of solar panels installed on about 160 acres of land that will be fenced in from the overall parcel, according to DePasquale and Kevin Morin, Green’s director of engineering and development.
The remaining land will be left in a natural state to provide buffer zones to neighboring properties and a wildlife corridor running through the middle of the array connecting with nearby forest land.
The planners voted 4 to 1 to grant the project final approval with a list of stipulations requiring protections for water resources in the area, limits on the type of materials to be used in blasting, erosion control measures for the construction phase, traffic controls for the Iron Mine Hill Road area, and rainfall monitoring and reporting to both the City of Woonsocket’s Water Department as well as the town.
The project location about mile uphill from the City of Woonsocket’s watershed for its main reservoir in North Smithfield and the Crook Fall Brook connection to its collection reservoir off Manville Road. The City of Woonsocket requested water quality reporting and monitoring at the site given the former auto salvage operations conducted in some areas and the potential for runoff changes resulting from construction.
The town’s review of the project began two years ago and included town council approval of a solar overlay district for the solar use as well as a tax treaty agreement that will earn the town approximately $5.4 million in revenue from the project over 20 years as well as a onetime payment of approximately $300,000 in host compensation that could include in-kind work on local recreational facilities.
Before the tour set out on Thursday, DePasquale said he was pleased work has finally begun on construction of the array.
“It was a long project, we’re happy that it’s done. It’s going to be good for the town and we’re excited to start,” DePasquale said.
Green has already finished logging and de-stumping the array site and will now begin blasting work and grading to prepare it for the installation of in-ground power connection infrastructure, service roadways, the solar panel racks and finally the panels themselves.
A total of 122,000 panels will be installed at the site to generate the array’s 38 megawatts of electricity, according to DePasquale.
The area to be preserved at the property is believed to be the remains of a colonial-era farmhouse.
The site was also reviewed for Native archaeological resources but only a small number of artifacts from transient use of an area near the southeast east corner of the property had been identified for further investigation.
“They did additional work and they didn’t find anything more,” Morin said.
“They found enough to go back and do a more detailed study of that specific spot and they didn’t find anything significant,” he added.
The location that was reviewed is on the fringe of the planned array and was not found to require “any additional protection,” Morin noted.
As part of the site development work, ledge outcroppings at the upper elevations will be blasted and the resulting material used in the grading work where needed, according to DePasquale.
The largest such project in Rhode Island, DePasquale said the Iron Mine Hill Road array will also be “one of the biggest projects in New England right now.”
As part of the planners’ final requirements, four monitoring wells have been installed at the site and DePasquale said all the initial testing came back “without issues.”
For now, about 27 Green employees are working at the site as the company ramps up its construction operations.
“Come next year, there will be 250 to 300 here every day for eight to nine months,” he said.
The project work will include contractors for installing electrical systems and trenching, NationalGrid employees working on electrical connections and a substation, fencing contractors and Green’s installation crew, DePasquale said.
The solar panels will be installed next year and DePasquale said the array should be ready to go online in October of 2021.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75