The Connecticut Siting Council — the state agency tasked with balancing the costs and benefits of locating new infrastructure in Connecticut — voted 3 -1 to approve a scaled back version of a proposal to build a 75-acre solar farm in Waterford previously rejected by the council in 2018.
The council will still need to approve a detailed development and management plan before construction can begin.
The state regulator found that the project by developer Greenskies Renewable Energy to install 45,976 panels capable of generating 15.3 megawatts of electricity would not cause a “substantial adverse environmental effect.”
That conclusion was disputed by local environmental advocates who contend that the project would increase runoff, erosion and pollution in the nearby Niantic River estuary.
The planned solar farm would be constructed in woodland just east of the interchange of Interstates 95 and 395, less than a mile from the Niantic River Estuary and between Stony Brook and Oil Mill Brook, which both feed into the Niantic.
Council member Mike Harder was the lone vote against the proposal. Two other members recused themselves from the vote and another member abstained.
Greenskies had originally proposed a 98-acre project to include 55,692 panels capable of generating 16.78 megawatts of electricity. The council rejected that proposal citing potential impacts to water quality and insufficient studies on the site’s stormwater control features.
Don Danilla, a retired fisheries biologist who studied the Niantic River for 30 years at the Millstone Power Station Environmental Laboratory, provided written testimony to the council for Save the River, Save the Hills.
Danilla warned that the project would increase runoff and erosion, and lead to sedimentation in nearby water bodies, especially the Niantic River.
“Because this is a heavily sloped, forested site, clear cutting 75 acres on this forested site only to replace it with impervious solar panels and barely-established grass cover will compact the soils, change the drainage patterns on the site, and cause more runoff from the site that will make its way into the estuary,” Danilla testified.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has identified the watershed as coldwater stream habitat supporting wild brook trout. Such streams are especially vulnerable to temperature changes and sedimentation in the gravel stream bed where the trout spawn.
Danilla wrote that Greenskies was not providing the council enough information about the impact the project would have on aquatic life in Oil Mill and Stony brooks, or in the Niantic River, which Danilla noted the state has listed as “impaired” for 15 years because of water quality issues.
“One of the biggest sources of pollution in the river is runoff,” Danilla wrote. “That runoff pollution comes not just directly into the Niantic River itself, but into its watershed, including tributaries like Oil Mill Brook and Stony Brook, and the intermittent streams that seasonally also contribute to the watershed. Runoff pollutes the river by discharging nutrients, particularly nitrogen, and by discharging silt.”
Greenskies worked with the DEEP’s Stormwater Program to change the design of its stormwater control features since the proposal was first rejected, including creating a larger buffer between the construction area and the edges of the property and relocating development away from areas with steep slopes.
The project will include 15 stormwater basins, which are designed to maintain existing drainage patterns, according to the opinion. Features like spillways, level spreaders and stone check dams are meant to slow water runoff to limit pollution.
Steve Trinkhaus, an environmental engineer and member of Save the River, Save the Hills, called those stormwater control measures “deficient” in a letter to the council.
The council disagreed, saying the plan would meet regulations.
“Although the site is within the watershed of both brooks, as well as the larger Niantic River watershed, the Council finds the project design will meet DEEP water quality standards as long as the Petitioner obtains a DEEP-issued Stormwater Permit, which requires site-specific Project design elements for stormwater management, as well as inspections and reports, to protect water resources,” the opinion read.
Selecting a location
The project requires clearing 75 acres and will fragment a 750-acre forest, considered a “large core forest” that can sustain a wider diversity of animal life than smaller forest blocks.
After the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection selected the project from a request for renewable energy proposals, the Connecticut legislature passed a law that bars subsequent developments of solar projects that will “affect the status of such land as a core forest.”
According to the decision, the proposed location is the only site able to be secured by Greenskies with a willing landowner that is also close to existing electrical infrastructure.
The project will connect to a nearby Eversource substation at the corner of Waterford Parkway North and Oil Mill Road.
The solar farm is expected to last for 35 years, and decommissioning would include removing the solar panels and infrastructure and restoring the site, which Greenskies does not own.
Greenskies did not return a message seeking comment.