CHATHAM – In the late 1960s and early '70s, the sand pit off Middle Road was the scene of dune buggy races every Sunday. Crowds came to cheer as local drivers races around the dirt track in custom-built vehicles that made up in power what they lacked in beauty.
The sand pit may be generating a different kind of power if a plan to develop solar photovoltaic array on the property wins approval.
NextGrid, a national company that develops and operates commercial solar and battery energy storage systems, is proposing to build an array of 8,424 solar modules on the sand pit property owned by J.W. Dubis and Sons. The ground-mounted array would generate 2.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 600 homes.
The site is located across Middle Road from the town's capped landfill, which is covered by 6,446 solar panels that generate 1.8 megawatts of power. The array covers most of town government's energy demand, saving about $200,000 annually.
The town could save another $80,000 on its power bill through the NextGrid project, which will be part of the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) Program, according to Daniel Serber, the company's director of development. One element of the solar incentive program is to allow the town to take several cents per kilowatt hour off its electric bill for locally-generated renewable energy.
Serber said NextGrid is finalizing a 25-year deal to sell power from the Middle Road array directly to Eversource. It will go directly into the local distribution loop and stay within the Chatham area, he said.
Owned by the Dubis family for more than 60 years, the parcel contains about 13 acres; attorney William Litchfield said it may be as large as 15 acres. A survey is being completed to pin down the exact boundaries and acreage.
Select Chair Shareen Davis confirmed that officials had discussions with the Dubis family about acquiring the land, most recently on Sept. 9. Robert Dubis, president of J.W. Dubis, said the family had hoped the land could be used for housing, but with so many other projects in the works, a sale to the town did not seem to be in the cards for the foreseeable future.
“In our heart of hearts we wanted it to be workforce housing, but it just wasn't working out right now,” he said. In the meantime, they were approached by NextGrid, which now has a purchase and sales agreement on the property.
Dubis said the land was used as a sand pit since before it was purchased by J.W. Dubis and Sons, and the Chatham-based contractor continued to mine sand and occasionally grind rocks there. Since the land is zoned residential, the use is nonconforming, said Litchfield, and the solar array will require a special permit from the zoning board of appeals. A 28-lot subdivision filed in 1987 to freeze zoning has since lapsed, and the land is now zoned for 30,000-square-foot lots. The Cape Cod Commission has determined that the solar farm use is less intense than the current use and therefore would not trigger review by the regional agency, he said.
Litchfield said the solar array is “inherently low impact,” and the only clearing required will be some vegetation on the south side of the property along Middle Road to reduce shadows. The only structure on the site will be an enclosure housing an inverter and storage batteries. The only residential abutters are along West Pond Road, and a buffer of at least 100 feet of trees and vegetation will be maintained between the neighborhood and the array, he said. There will also be a buffer maintained between the array and several homes to the west.
Closing the sand pit will eliminate more than a dozen daily trips by large trucks, Litchfield said. The solar array will require little maintenance, perhaps a dozen visits per year, and the land underneath the modules will be planted with native grasses and pollinators. The entire site will be fenced, he added.
Members of the planning board asked whether glare from the modules would potentially impact neighbors, noting that had been a problem with the array at the landfill. Much of the array will be in a low area on the property, Litchfield said. “It's a big hole,” he commented. Serber added that newer solar panels are designed to absorb sunlight and not create glare.
This will be NextGrid's first large project on the Cape, Serber said in an email, although the company has developed rooftop systems in the area, including in Orleans, Dennis and Hyannis.
“We are proud of the Chatham project because it represents how we believe ground-mounted solar should be developed on the Cape,” he wrote. “We're building on what is now a soon-to-be retired sand pit to breathe new productivity into already disturbed land.”
Along with the former landfill, the town also has solar arrays at the annex and police stations. According to Liz Argo of the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, the Cape's largest solar array is at Barnstable Airport, which has 21,296 modules and generates 5.7 megawatts of power. The 15,488 modules at the Harwich landfill generate 4.5 megawatts.
Litchfield said a formal site plan hearing with the planning has been tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10; the zoning board hearing has yet to be scheduled, but he anticipates it will also be held in December.
Serber said construction of the array will begin next year.