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January 12, 2017 CT Green Guide

CT weighs renewables, where to put them

Contributed photo State government is grappling with the potential impact of a growing number of solar farms on agricultural properties.

Connecticut environmental officials are juggling many balls in working toward an update of the state’s comprehensive energy strategy, or CES.

The plan promises to be expansive. The first ever CES issued in 2013 was several hundred pages, laying out the state’s priorities for energy efficiency and needs, electricity supply, renewable energy, natural gas and transportation.

The stakes are also high. For example, the 2013 CES laid the groundwork for a major expansion of natural gas heating to approximately 300,000 additional state residents. That expansion, which recently survived a state Supreme Court challenge by heating oil dealers, is ongoing.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) hopes to have a draft ready in the coming months so that lawmakers can use it as a guide in drafting and evaluating bills during the legislative session that ends in early June.

A multitude of interests have a stake in the CES and the legislative session.

To name just a few:

  • Fuel-cell makers are hoping the plan will place higher priority on their technology, after disappointing results in several recent state-led selections of energy developments.

  • Millstone Nuclear Power Station is expected to again push for legislation that would allow it to better compete with suppressed natural gas prices.

As a part of the CES planning process, legislators, developers, utility representatives, environmental advocates, and officials from DEEP and the Department of Agriculture spent much of the day Tuesday discussing the siting of large-scale clean energy projects.

The growing number of large solar arrays on agricultural land has been a point of contention, with Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky and the Council on Environmental Quality expressing concern since last year.

Both Reviczky and DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee spoke at Tuesday’s workshop, held at DEEP headquarters.

Reviczky praised Klee, saying he has had multiple meetings with him to discuss the potential impact state-selected solar projects could have on farming in the state.

Reviczky remains concerned about DEEP’s recent selection of major solar projects to negotiate contracts with utilities. Many of the solar projects, some of which are 20 megawatts in size, would be sited on “some of the best agricultural soils in Connecticut,” Reviczky said.

Klee acknowledged that energy and environmental goals can conflict, but expressed confidence the CES could strike a suitable balance in promoting renewable energy while protecting land, wildlife and water.

“We’re capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time,” Klee said.

Any policy changes could impact (either negatively or positively) energy developers, farmers, landowners and the state’s aggressive goals for greenhouse-gas reductions.

Providing greater incentives to site renewable energy development on closed landfills or brownfields was one idea mentioned during the workshop. Another was to find a way to site solar projects on transmission line right-of-way corridors.

Tom Swank, president of Old Saybrook’s SunEast Development, said besides the environmental benefits of solar, long-term leases of agricultural land can provide financial security to farmers.

Swank, whose company cast a winning bid in one of two recent state-run RFPs for a six-megawatt solar farm in Preston, said solar projects selected in the RFPs would impact just over 1,300 acres in Connecticut -- well under 1 percent of the total cropland in the state.

Under a scenario in which lawmakers increase the requirements of the state’s renewable portfolio standard -- a mandate that utilities purchase a certain amount of clean power -- solar would impact just 2 percent of total cropland, according to Swank’s estimates.

“Does that mean we just go willy-nilly and let anybody develop on agricultural land without restrictions?” Swank asked. “That’s not the right answer. Developers must be responsible.”

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Environmental Council concerned about farmland solar

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