Solar Panels Welcome in Springfield

Western Massachusetts Electric Company recently finished building the largest utility-owned solar power facility in New England – with 8,200 solar panels. And they're in an unlikely location – right in the middle of a Springfield neighborhood.

Less than a year ago, here on Goodwin Street in the Indian Orchard section of Springfield,  this 12-acre lot  was considered a brownfield. The fire hydrant factory that once stood here was long gone. but the land was left contaminated with radiation. It had long been considered a neighborhood safety hazard and an eyesore. Today, in stark contrast to the nearby subsidized housing complex and modest, single-family homes, the lot is filled with thousands of gleaming solar panels. They're a bit startling but Doug Carter, a retired railroad worker who lives in the neighborhood, says they're a welcome change to the landscape.

"It's nice to see something positive for a piece of property that's pretty much been damaged to the point where nothing else can be done with it."

Carter says the solar panels offer a glimmer of hope in a neighborhood he says has been on the decline for years.  

"The neighborhood's gone downhill, there's a lot more crime, drugs. You know, my wife just ran a couple of drug dealers off the street a few nights ago 'cause I live on a dirt road and they like to go down there where it's nice and private. That's happening with greater frequency. I get stolen cars left at my house all the time."

But Carter says he's uplifted when he sees the solar panels, which produce electricity every day, even when it's cloudy. On a sunny day the facility puts out up to 2.4 megawatts, enough to power 500 homes. That contributes to the state's goal of increased solar generation, facilitated by the Green Communities Act of 2008.

It was just last spring when Carter and his neighbors were invited to a public meeting to hear about Western Massachusetts Electric Company's proposal to bring solar panels to Indian Orchard.  WMECO spokeswoman Sandra Ahearn says gauging interest was an important first step.

"We had a number of meetings with both city officials and we reached out to the Indian Orchard neighborhood Council because we felt very strongly that although we thought this was a good use of the property, we wanted to be sure the local residents felt the same."

And they did. Susan Soto is treasurer of the council and says she doesn't remember any vocal opposition from anyone in the neighborhood. Soto has lived in the area for 56 years and watched as the city removed the last defunct building on the property and WMECO signed a lease with the Springfield Redevelopment Authority.

"Things just went very quickly. So they came out here in May, talked to the neighborhood, it went right to the Redevelopment Authority. Bang, they were building it within two or three weeks."

That made this different from other energy developments — such as proposals to build biomass plants in the nearby towns of Russell and Greenfield, and in Springfield itself, and a wind farm proposal in Brimfield. This solar facility in Indian Orchard was met without debate or resistance.

One reason may be,  compared to other power generation sources, solar has no emissions and little visual impact., according to Richard Sullivan, Massachusetts' Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

"This project in particular, really is not by accident that it has had good support in the community because it did follow through on the public engagement but it also is on an issue of clean energy and job creation that are all good for the community of Indian Orchard."

Some neighbors have issues with the project: Indian Orchard residents won't see lower electricity rates or more reliable service. That disappoints Eileen McGrath, the president of Indian Orchard Citizen's Council. She says she wishes the city would take a portion of the property tax revenues it receives from WMECO — -about  400 thousand dollars a year – and put it into neighborhood improvements.

"What can we expect in our neighborhood from this? I do wish that they had considered maybe upgrading Goodwin Street?"

McGrath wishes those questions had been raised before the project was finalized. The solar panels have a lifespan of about 25 years, and WMECO has a 30-year lease on the Indian Orchard property.