Court Monitor

Court Turns the Lights Out on Intrusive Solar Cell Project

Solar power is a favorite of liberals. When a solar power company was founded by a prominent member of the Kennedy family, that combination would seemingly be unbeatable in a judicial proceeding in Massachusetts. So ordinary townsfolk faced grim odds when they challenged a permit to build a massive solar array, by suing a solar power company founded by former Democratic Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II.

But a stunning upset occurred when Massachusetts Land Court Judge Judith Cutler ruled against the solar power company founded by Kennedy, and in favor of the residents of Hatfield who had sued to block the construction of a solar array on 45 acres in their community.

A company named Citizens Enterprise Corp. sought to install this large array of solar cells. Citizens Enterprise is a for-profit subsidiary of a non-profit entity called Citizens Energy Corp. Citizens Enterprise leased the farmland and its subsidiary Hatfield Solar LLC obtained a permit from the building commissioner in Hatfield, Massachusetts for installation of the solar cell array.

There is an ongoing political conflict between promoters of renewable energy, including solar power, and farmers who need the availability of large tracts of tillable soil at an affordable price. Organic farming, with the extensive crop rotation that it requires, uses more land than pesticide-based farming does, and the rise in popularity of organic foods highlights the demand for preserving open farming space. In addition, the diversion of many corn crops for energy use, such as biomass to produce ethanol, has driven up the cost of corn and with it the price of beef, because cattle feed on corn. Indeed, beef prices have risen to record highs, imposing burdens on millions of Americans.

The solar array planned for Hatfield, Massachusetts, consisted of 8,276 solar panels estimated to produce perhaps only about 2.4 megawatts of power -- barely enough to turn on ten thousand 200-Watt light bulbs. Sometimes the customer for this type of project is a governmental entity rather than the free market, casting doubt on whether renewable energy production is really competitive with other energy sources. The plan to construct the solar panels in Hatfield was estimated to cost more than a million dollars, but opponents of the plan asserted that the total cost would be far more, perhaps even in excess of $10 million.

Twenty-one plaintiffs, including property owners located adjacent to the planned project and other town residents, joined this lawsuit to block it, and the court ruled in their favor by finding that solar energy production requires industrial zoning, not merely the residential zoning prevalent in most communities.

"The solar project only makes sense on scrubland," observed the attorney for the townsfolk who won this victory in court. "This is farmland. They're essentially destroying it." In a post-verdict surprise, the public learned that the company had quietly sold the project to other investors before losing in court.