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Efforts continue on airport solar plant project

  • Jan 25, 2022
Watertown Daily Times

Jan. 25—WATERTOWN — The businessman planning to build a solar panel manufacturing plant near the airport says he has arranged all the project's financing and is ready to transport 115,000 pieces of equipment from a dismantled plant in Oregon.

Hari Achuthan, president and chief executive officer of Convalt Energy and DigiCollect, said Monday night he hopes construction can start by the end of the year on the proposed 300,000-square-foot plant near the Watertown International Airport on Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield.

He and his management team are ready to make a presentation on Feb. 1 to the Hounsfield town planning board about the $63 million plant's construction and get final site plan approval at the March meeting.

"We already got the investors lined up," he said following a City Council work session on Monday night.

But his biggest concern is getting enough electricity to the site to power the plant that would initially create 290 jobs, Mr. Achuthan said.

At this point, National Grid isn't capable of providing that much power, he told council members. So Mr. Achuthan still needs to figure out how he can get enough electricity to the site.

National Grid has told him it would cost $19 million to build a substation and create three miles of transmission lines to the site, owned by the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency.

To offset those costs, he's expressed an interest in acquiring an old hydroelectric plant on Sewall's Island from the city.

After a 45-minute discussion, the City Council approved a license agreement with Convalt so that the company can complete a preliminary study to determine the feasibility of using the redeveloped hydro plant as an energy source for the plant.

"Not every day you get to work with a developer with your success record," Councilwoman Sarah Compo Pierce said after the vote.

Mr. Achuthan also confirmed he's looking at three potential sites to develop solar panel arrays that would also provide energy to power the plant.

Council members support converting the defunct city landfill on Water Street for one of the solar array projects. The other two are an old St. Regis Paper Mill in Deferiet and one near the site at the airport.

But Mr. Achuthan said the Sewall's Island hydro plant is more crucial because it would provide "base load power" for the planned Convalt plant, while the solar panels would not.

He also intends on creating a cafe/hydro museum and artist studios on the other side of the island that could be a tourist destination.

Michael A. Lumbis, the city's planning and community development director, said that idea could "fit in" with the city's plans to develop part of the island into walking and biking trails, parkland and other recreational activities.

During Monday's meeting, Councilman Cliff G. Olney III said he wanted to wait to give Convalt permission for the hydro plant feasibility study until he knew more about it. He cast the only no vote.

However, Mr. Achuthan promised to give updates to the council on the progress of the feasibility study.

It would take two to four years to develop the hydro plant and to go through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for license approval before the facility could be in operation, he said.

Until Monday night, much of the company's recent efforts to build the manufacturing plant have been out of the limelight.

His company has purchased equipment from a defunct Oregon renewable energy company, SunPower Corporation.

That effort includes dismantling 500,000 power circuits, 715,000 cables and boxing up, wrapping up and labeling 115,000 pieces of equipment that will be transported by rail to the north country, he said.

"Those are some amazing numbers for you," Mr. Achuthan said.

The Convalt plant could create 4,555 jobs in 10 years, according to the company.

Its sister company, DigiCollect, a software company that manufactures sensors for monitoring residential grids and transmission lines, would also build a 50,000-square-foot facility near the airport.


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