Massive Solar Facility Would Displace Farmland, Forest
R.I. plans to buy 50 megawatts annually from controversial Connecticut project
November 25, 2020
A plan to build one of New England’s largest ground-mounted solar installations is drawing opposition, but it’s not coming from residents.
The 485-acre Gravel Pit Solar project in East Windsor, Conn., has a 120-megawatt capacity, with 50 megawatts designated for Rhode Island. But despite the project’s name, only 16 percent of the solar facility’s footprint will cover gravel and sand quarry land. Farmland and forest account for 288 acres.
The Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) argues that the solar project is displacing land used to grow tobacco, feed corn, and vegetables.
“The continuing concentration of solar energy facilities on the tillable farmland, rather than on peripheral land, threatens the continued viability of the agricultural economy in the state,” Peter Hearn, CEQ’s executive director, wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to the Connecticut Siting Council.
Hearn noted the solar project includes an agricultural soil protection and restoration plan that requires dismantling the solar panel foundations and the removal of buried electrical cables at the end of the installation’s useful life. But he has concerns with this plan.
“Decommissioning and restoration is an unproven promise,” Hearn wrote.
The land could endure as a solar facility and “the probability that the site will never return to farming needs to be acknowledged,” he added.
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture (CDA) opposes the issuance of a certificate of environmental compatibility because of the destruction of 230 acres of prime farmland in the Connecticut River Valley. The state agency claims that the installation and use of heavy equipment would cause acidification, soil compaction, destruction of soil structure, and changes to hydrology.
The loss of farmland hurts the local and regional agricultural industry and the businesses that support farmers, according to the agency. The loss of land, including 58 acres of woodland that will be cleared or altered, also threatens many permanent and migratory species that depend on Connecticut’s farm fields for habitat.
“Approval of this project would be counter to the state’s goals of farmland protection and the promotion of agricultural and economic development, both of which are important components of sustainability and climate change adaptation and mitigation,” Bryan Hurlburt, CDA commissioner, wrote in a Nov. 4 letter to the Connecticut Siting Council.
Hurlburt offered seven mitigation measures the developer could enact, such as restoration of farmland at another location within the town or by buying conservation easements for nearby farms.
Residents, however, support the project, mostly because it will displace illegal and active dirt bike and ATV trails.
East Windsor first selectman Jason Bowsza said the town endorses the project and its fenced perimeter that will discourage trespassers and underage drinking on the property. He said the solar project would also curb permanent development.
A solar facility, Bowsza wrote in a Nov. 12 letter to the state siting board, is a welcome alternative to the fading tobacco farming industry. The developer, D.E. Shaw & Co., is considering setting aside land for sheep grazing and has committed to establishing pollinator habitat to benefit the town’s growing beekeeping community, according to Bowsza.
The New York City-based global investor also intends to improve the quality of soil, so that the site can be returned to growing crops at the end of the project’s operation. The company said it will implement measures for the life of the project to maintain the soil for groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, water quality, and erosion control.
Bowsza said the objection raised by the CEQ over a diminishing amount of agricultural land preserved across the state is because of the agency’s lack of staff to secure funding for farmland protection.
Abutters submitted letters or spoke during a Nov. 12 hearing in support of the project. They welcomed the revenue and the reduction in truck traffic once the quarry closes. If the project is approved, Gravel Pit Solar would pay East Windsor $378,000 in annual taxes, plus $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements.
“You’re going to have a nice tax base there for the town, and they’re not going to require any town services either,” South Windsor resident Robert Urso said during the recent online hearing.
Rhode Island has been touting the acquisition of the 50 megawatts toward its goal of securing 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by the end of this year. When asked about the displacement of open space, Nicholas Ucci, head of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER), said he was under the impression that the project was being built primary on a gravel pit. But even so, he noted during a recent forum about the state’s plan for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 that OER can’t dictate siting requirements for out-of-state renewable energy projects.
“So as I think I mentioned earlier, we’re not in a position through this report to put out hard and fast rules about solar development,” Ucci said during the Nov. 20 public forum.
In an email to ecoRI News, he wrote, “it is well understood that a long-term contract approved by a state regulatory agency is not a guarantee of construction and operation. Ultimately, such projects must receive and abide by all required permitting and siting regulations in the jurisdiction where it is located. This is true for any renewable development, whether in-state, out of state, or in adjacent waters.”
He noted that OER supports incentives and power-purchase pricing that support renewable-energy development in already-built areas such as parking lots and brownfields.
In March, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission approved a 20-year purchase agreement for National Grid to pay 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for the solar power from Gravel Pit Solar. The 50 megawatts purchased by Rhode Island is equivalent to electricity for more than 18,500 homes. D.E. Shaw has pledged to spend $300,000 on workforce development in Rhode Island.
The application process before the Connecticut Siting Council is moving quickly. Public comment can be submitted to [email protected] until Dec. 12. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1. A draft finding-of-fact report is expected to be released Dec. 17. The draft opinion, decision, and order are scheduled to be released Jan. 7. The final decision is expected by Jan. 27.
If approved, the project is scheduled to break ground in summer 2021 and be operational by late 2022 or early 2023.