One of the largest solar power projects in Massachusetts is being constructed on the property of a former coal-burning power plant in Holyoke.
More than 17,000 solar panels are being installed in the shadow of the smokestack of the former Mount Tom Power Station. The nearly 6 megawatt solar farm should come online in January. The old power plant, which operated from 1960-2014, and the smokestack – a landmark for people traveling up and down I-91 -- will be demolished in the spring.
The solar panels are being installed on 22 acres of the 128-acre Mt. Tom Power Station property along the Connecticut River. At a ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday, ENGIE North America President and CEO Frank Demaille said the project is a “landmark” for the international company as it transitions from large centralized power plants to local low-carbon emission energy production.
Holyoke Gas & Electric has signed an agreement to purchase all the electricity produced at the solar farm. It is enough to power 1,000 homes. James Lavelle, the manager of the municipal power company, said the terms of the agreement will help to maintain some of the lowest electric rates in the region.
" This project coupled with some other solar projects that will be online in early 2017 will mean over 75 percent of our electric portfolio will be renewable energy and over 98 percent will be carbon-free," he said.
Community organizers and representatives from environmental groups celebrated the solar farm groundbreaking after a five-year campaign to urge the permanent shutdown of the coal-fired plant. Carlos Rodriguez, a leader of the umbrella group Action for a Healthy Holyoke, blamed the old plant for high asthma rates in the lower Pioneer Valley.
" It was hard fighting every single day ( to get the plant shutdown). We did it. We did it," said Rodreguez.
Claire Miller, a lead organizer with Toxics Action Center, said Holyoke is a model for other communities that have old coal-burning plants.
"One of the advantages of a coal-fired power plant site is that it is already connected to the energy grid, so looking into whether a coal site can be used for renewable energy is something I hope every community looks to first," said Miller.
Noting that a re-use study spearheaded by his administration had recommended putting solar panels on part of the power plant property, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said the $10 million redevelopment is a “feather in the city’s cap.”
" This is what we wanted to see happen," said Morse. " We were proactive and now we are seeing results."
Morse said he hopes the rest of the former power plant property will be used for a commercial development and public access to the river, which were also recommended in the re-use study.
The city will receive a $146,000 annual payment in lieu of taxes from the solar farm.