Hazardous waste site may house solar energy farm

COVENTRY, RHODE ISLAND - A New York-based private developer plans to announce today it will build a $45-million solar energy farm on a former hazardous-waste dump in western Coventry.

Allco Renewable Energy said it will sign a letter of intent with the Town of Coventry to build the project on the former Picillo pig farm, a 100-acre tract of town-owned land. An 8-acre portion of the farm was declared a federal Superfund site in he 1980s.

The developer said it will be the largest solar energy farm east of the Mississippi River. The agreement with the town gives Allco a 50-year lease to use the site. Allco has agreed to pay the town $200,000 a year or 4 percent of the electricity sales, whichever is greater. The minimum amount will increase according to any rise in inflation.

Allco also plans to explore whether the site might be suitable to generate electricity from wind turbines. The company is not seeking special tax treatment or any other incentives from the town or the state, said Bill Fischer, a spokesman for Allco. Company executives, along with state and local officials plan to announce the project at a State House news conference.

The solar farm is the latest in a series of renewable energy projects that developers have proposed for Rhode Island. Allco is the same firm that in November proposed to build a major wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island.

That proposal entails erecting 235 to 338 large wind turbines in state waters just off Watch Hill, Block Island and Little Compton. That project is on hold as state coastal development regulators decide the process in which they will permit off-shore wind farms.

Governor Carcieri has been pushing a plan to develop a massive wind farm off the southern coast of the state that would be large enough to supply 15 percent of Rhode Island's electricity usage. The governor's office is seeking legislation that it says is needed to make the project financially attractive to a private developer.

And Oceanlinx, an Australian company, has proposed building two wave-energy facilities off the coasts of Point Judith and Block Island that would convert energy from the waves into electricity.

The governor's office has proposed financing this $45-milli n project with state general revenue bonds. The proposals come at a time of near-record high-energy prices and growing concern about power plant emissions contributing to global warming. And it comes as state legislators have become increasingly interested in promoting renewable energy projects.

There are about a half-dozen energy-related bills designed to encourage more renewable energy projects now pending in the General Assembly. The Coventry solar farm will consist of hundreds of 3-feet by 5-feet solar panels that would fill 90 percent of the 100-acre site, said Fischer, the Allco spokesman.

The panels each sit on a motorized based to keep them oriented toward the sun as the Earth turns. The farm is expected to generate up to 8 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 7,200 homes. (By comparison, the natural-gas fired Manchester Street Station has the capacity to generate up to 495 megawatts of electricity, or 62 times the solar arm capacity.)

Allco plans to sell the electricity to a power distributor such as National Grid. Allco will also erect a meteorological tower on the site to take measurements of the wind over time. That data will help the company determine whether it would be financially viable to install one or more wind turbines on the site, Fischer said.

He declined to speculate on how many wind turbines the company might want to install, saying it would depend on the economics, as well as whether town residents wanted them. The company would need permits from both the town and the state Department of Environmental Management, Fischer said. Allco has already met with the DEM, which Fischer said was a "very positive meeting."

Construction of the solar farm could begin as early as this year, if the permitting process moves quickly, he said. The company plans to build the solar farm incrementally, Fischer said. The total build-out could take up to four years, he said.

The site, off Perry Hill Road, was formerly known as the Picillo Pig Farm. The federal Environmental Protection Agency declared about 8 acres of the farm a Superfund site after determining that more than 10,000 drums of hazardous waste and an undetermined volume of liquid chemicals were disposed of into several unlined trenches, according to the agency.

The site was discovered in 1977, when a fire and explosion occurred. The state DEM removed drums that contained sodium aluminum hydride, and from 1980 to 1982, the DEM and the EPA excavated the trenches and removed the majority of the wastes, the EPA said. Fischer said that the remediation work is ongoing and is being performed by the EPA.

He said that the contaminated area lies in a small section of the overall parcel, leaving 90 acres for the solar farm. Coventry Acting Town Manager Paul Sprague said the agreement is a positive development for the town and for the land.

"We've got a piece of property that is a wasteland," he said.

With the Allco agreement, the property will now generate revenue for the town.


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