Large-scale solar power generation is once again a hot issue in Hartford, after the Connecticut Siting Council recently approved a solar project in East Windsor that, when completed, will become the biggest installation in the state.
The Gravel Pit Solar will sit on 485 acres of land that includes former sand and gravel pits and tobacco fields, according to Meaghan Wims, a spokeswoman for D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, the New York-based company behind the project. The project was approved on March 1.
Construction of the solar farm, which is adjacent to a landfill, industrial buildings, other gravel pits and two smaller solar projects, is expected to start as early as next summer, Wims said, with solar panel installations likely to begin in spring 2022. Gravel Pit Solar will begin producing 120 megawatts of power in late 2022.
Gravel Pit Solar has power-purchase agreements with United Illuminating and Eversource Energy, which will buy 20 megawatts of the total amount of electricity the plant will produce, according to Wims.
The project was also selected by Rhode Island officials for renewable energy generation, she said, and has utilities under contract to purchase 50 megawatts. Municipal light and power departments in Rhode Island and Massachusetts will buy the remaining 50 megawatts.
Still, even when it’s completed, nobody will ever mistake Connecticut for any of the states in the southwestern United States, where acres and acres of solar panels silently soak up the sun.
Depending upon who you talk to, the state is either moving ahead too fast or too slow in permitting solar projects.
“The goals that DEEP has set for commercial solar aren’t any higher than they have been over the past couple years,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of the trade group Solar Connecticut. “The state handicaps and puts handcuffs on the growth of commercial solar.”
But there is clear and persistent opposition to large solar projects. There are a half a dozen pieces of legislation before the legislative committee of Connecticut General Assembly that seek to limit the growth of large-scale solar projects in the state, according to Trahan.
State Rep. Mary Mushinky, D-Wallingford, a member of the legislature’s Environment Committee, said Connecticut lawmakers need to send a message to developers of major solar projects.
“The developer here goes where the land is flat and the price is cheap,” said Mushinsky, who is a long-time champion of the environment.
Germany, Mushinsky said, is country that gets solar right. “They have financial disincentives for developing solar on pristine land and incentives for putting panels on parking lot canopies, on buildings and in blighted urban areas,” she said. “What’s lacking here is that we don’t send out any kind of price signals at all to [developers].”
Melanie Bachman, executive director of the Connecticut Siting Council, said East Windsor officials were supportive of Gravel Pit Solar because of problems with off-road vehicles on part of the property.
“They felt that the fencing the project will have around it will put an end to that problem,” Bachman said. The Council is responsible for overseeing the siting of power facilities, transmission lines, hazardous waste facilities and other forms of infrastructure, including telecommunications sites.
When another project by D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments — the 130-acre, 100,000-panel Tobacco Valley Solar project in Simsbury, which started operating in 2019 — was proposed more than three years earlier, it was met with plenty of opposition by local residents.
The Tobacco Valley project is now producing about $600,000 a year in additional tax revenue over the full operating life of the solar array.
State Senator Norman Needleman, D-Essex, a co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology committee, said “there has always been a very dynamic tension between the environmental and agricultural communities over this.”
“I’m always on the fence on this,” Needleman said. “I think we should always be doing more to promote renewable energy. The problem is our [hilly] topography and woods. I’m reluctant to promote the cutting down of trees to build a solar farm.”
Mushinsky said Connecticut is a densely-populated state with little open space. “We should be very careful how we lay out things,” she said.
And in the suburbs, yards filled with solar panels can cause squabbles between neighbors. Karen Zarkades, of Cheshire, said her cousins in Massachusetts live next door to a yard full of panels. “It’s not a happy situation,” she said.
Trahan, the executive director of Solar Connecticut, said the lawmakers’ fears are short-sighted.
“Who is the state of Connecticut to tell a private landowner who they can sell their land to?” Trahan said. “For a farmer who is facing bankruptcy, why should the state stand in the way if they want to put some or all of their land on the market to a solar developer?”
More large solar projects, Trahan said, would help provide Connecticut with a more secure energy future.
“We don’t have oil like Texas or natural gas like West Virginia,” Trahan said. “This can help make us energy independent. We don’t need a [power] line from Quebec to bring hydropower to us at great expense. We can do it all here.”
Some communities, like Wallingford and Cheshire in New Haven County and Bridgeport in Fairfield County, have solar arrays on top of former landfills.
Joel Gordes, a West Hartford-based energy consultant, said having solar energy projects is important because it makes it less likely that foreign terrorists, or anyone else trying to shut down the nation’s energy sources, will be able to do so.
“I am wary of too much wind, because you have transmission line that you need in order to bring it to shore that could be tampered with,” Gordes said. “Solar can be installed in smaller amounts with arrays all over the state.”