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June 17, 2020

East Windsor gravel pits could host largest solar project in the Northeast

Photo | Contributed The developer of the recently completed Tobacco Valley Solar project in Simsbury, pictured here, seeks to outdo itself. A solar project on tap in East Windsor would be nearly five times larger.

A New York-based hedge fund plans to seek state approval this year for a massive 120-megawatt solar development in East Windsor, which could be the largest array in the Northeast and one of the biggest in the country, the Hartford Business Journal has learned.

The proposed project, which could generate enough energy to power more than 12,000 homes, would cover 485 acres of a 785-acre site in East Windsor stretching northeast from the South Windsor town border up to Apothecaries Hall Road, according to details shared this month with East Windsor planning and zoning officials.

The Gravel Pit Solar project is named for the gravel pits on which the panels would be mounted, a substantial swath of land that has created headaches for the town over the years, as the property has been a popular haunt for unauthorized ATV riders and late-night partiers.

The Board of Selectmen in April approved a tax stabilization agreement with the developer, D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments (DESRI), that would provide just shy of $10 million in local revenue over the next two decades, First Selectman Jason Bowsza said in an interview Wednesday.

The town won’t have much of a role in the project’s approval, which must ultimately come from the Connecticut Siting Council. The CSC has jurisdiction over any new energy projects that generate 2 megawatts or more in power.

Image | Contributed
Gravel Pit Solar's panel arrays would span nearly 500 acres in East Windsor, ending to the south just shy of the South Windsor border.

D.E. Shaw’s project developer, North Light Energy, told the town planning & zoning commission earlier this month that it intends to file its CSC application in the summer or fall, with hopes for approval by spring 2021. Construction would take place between late 2021 and late 2022.

Gravel Pit was one of nine solar developments, both in and outside of Connecticut, selected by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in late 2018 to negotiate contracts to sell their energy to Connecticut’s utilities. That same round of selections included a massive contract assignment for the Millstone nuclear plant. 

However, it was unclear exactly where Gravel Pit Solar would be located in the state, as its proposal to DEEP, as is common in such competitive energy bidding, was heavily redacted.
In fact, it wasn’t until a full year after those DEEP selections were announced that East Windsor officials finally learned the details of the project during a meeting with DESRI representatives, Bowsza said.

“It was wonderful to have them walk in the door,” he said.

Bowsza said he doesn’t expect much opposition to the project from residents for several reasons.

First, Gravel Pit Solar is expected to become the town’s largest taxpayer. The stabilization agreement calls for approximately $380,000 per year in tax payments, plus an additional $1.5 million for infrastructure, he said.

The developer would also encircle the massive property with a fence, which will further discourage illegal use of the land.

Third, there are only a handful of properties with sightlines to the proposed solar panels.
Finally, the project will produce renewable energy. 

"It checks a lot of boxes,” he said of the project’s benefits.

Bowsza previously worked for the state Department of Agriculture, where he handled solar approvals for farmland properties. That’s where he first met DESRI’s team, in connection with a 26-megawatt solar array its company, Deepwater Wind (which it has since sold to Orsted), was developing in Simsbury. The Simsbury project -- called Tobacco Valley Solar -- was completed late last year, according to DESRI, and Bowsza said it’s currently the largest solar development in Connecticut.

"Having some familiarity at the outset really makes the process smoother,” he said.

DESRI bills itself as a leading owner-operator of utility-scale renewables across the U.S., having developed 25 wind and solar power plants since 2011 and now owns about three dozen in all, totaling more than 2 gigawatts of capacity. The company has raised more than $10 billion in financing, tax equity, and other capital for its affiliates’ projects.

When DESRI’s team first contacted Bowsza’s office in December, the East Windsor project was going to be 75 megawatts, which, Bowsza noted, “is still gigantic.”

But during the several months of negotiations that followed (which were delayed somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic), DESRI called Bowsza to tell him they would be changing the project’s scope.

Bowsza said his immediate reaction was disappointment, as he assumed the project was getting smaller, but it was just the opposite. The developer planned to increase the project by 60%, to 120 megawatts. That meant more tax revenue for East Windsor and an even more notable project certain to draw attention to the town from far and wide.

"I was very happily surprised,” Bowsza said.

It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday why the project size increased. North Light Energy’s president, Aaron Svedlow, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Gravel Pit Solar will also sell some of its output to National Grid in Rhode Island, ecoRI News reported in April.

Bowsza said selectmen discussed whether the town should offtake some of the renewable energy from the project, but that the decision ultimately came down to whether the town wanted a higher per-megawatt-based tax rate from the development or a discounted energy price.

With plenty of opportunities for municipalities to buy discounted clean power, the board chose the former.

“We’d rather have the revenue than the reduced rate,” Bowsza said.

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