Environmental Priorities — Solar Energy and Land Conservation — Compete in the Legislature

Competing environmental priorities will come to a head again in Hartford as lawmakers consider whether to add more regulations in an effort to prevent new solar projects from impacting tracts of farmland and forest.

The General Assembly’s Environment Committee agreed on Wednesday to consider legislation this session on the siting of solar projects on certain farmlands and forests.

As part of a larger energy bill passed in 2017, the legislature adopted regulations requiring that the Connecticut Department of Agriculture review any solar project proposed for prime farmland with a total generating capacity of more than 2 megawatts, and that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection review any solar project proposed for core forest land.

“It’s holding solar projects to a higher standard than other forms of development,” he said. “It’s really frustrating that these ideas are getting traction. Policy like this isn’t considering the magnitude of the climate crisis.”

Lawmakers have introduced legislation on the topic, including State Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, who proposed a bill that would reduce the threshold for review on prime farmland to 1 megawatt, establish a fund to purchase conservation easements on farmland to offset losses to solar, and would require a bond for decommissioning solar projects on prime farmland as defined by state and federal rules.

The 2017 law has not resolved a struggle between land conservation advocates and advocates of expanding generation of renewable energy — competing interests that recently came to a head in southeastern Connecticut when the Connecticut Siting Council finally approved a 15 megawatt project that will require cutting 75 acres of core forest in Waterford, despite years of opposition from local activists, who say they are concerned about the impact on water quality in area.

Last November, the council also approved a 3.2 megawatt project in Bristol that will cover 11.2 acres of prime farmland.

Chelsea Gazillo, director of Working Land Alliance, an umbrella group advocating for farmers and the conservation of farmland, supports Horn’s bill. According to Gazillo, there have been more solar developers approaching farmers in the past five years with proposals to site large-scale solar arrays on land often designated as prime and important. In a conversation with CT Examiner, she said that prime farmland and farmland of statewide importance make up a majority of the working farmland in Connecticut.

According to Gazillo, the aim of the bill is to add transparency to the siting process, and allow the public to offer more input on those decisions.

“Loss of access to those fields can severely affect those farms,” Gazillo said. “It can disrupt their business planning and development, succession planning, and even their ability to implement climate-smart agricultural practices.”

Gazillo said the bill is also intended to include projects that would be sited on prime farmland, but fall just below the existing 2 megawatt threshold for review by the state’s Department of Agriculture to determine if the project would disrupt the land or affect its designation as prime farmland.

Francis Pullaro, executive director of RENEW Northeast, a nonprofit coordinating energy producers and environmental advocates, already opposed the 2017 law. Pullaro said lawmakers should be considering easing restrictions rather than adding additional regulations.

“It’s holding solar projects to a higher standard than other forms of development,” he said. “It’s really frustrating that these ideas are getting traction. Policy like this isn’t considering the magnitude of the climate crisis.”

Emily Cole, New England climate and agricultural program manager at American Farmland Trust, said that while her organization doesn’t support displacement of agriculture, it does support “smart solar siting” including dual-use solar on land that continues to be farmed. 

So-called “co-location” is a common feature of recent applications for solar arrays on farmland, and includes proposals to locate pollinator habitats under solar arrays, or allow sheep-grazing on the site.

Credit: American Farmland Trust

A report released by American Farmland Trust in 2020 warned that Connecticut lost 23,000 acres, or about 6 percent, of its agricultural land to development between 2001 and 2016.

Cole said prime farmland is continually being lost to development of housing and commercial real estate, because it’s open and flat. Farmland is also being developed quickly into solar because farmers see an opportunity to make a steady income by renting out their land, either to support their farm or get out of farming.

“Loss of access to those fields can severely affect those farms,” Gazillo said. “It can disrupt their business planning and development, succession planning, and even their ability to implement climate-smart agricultural practices.”

A double standard?

According to Pullaro, solar developers in Connecticut bid in competitive procurements, so they are looking for the lowest cost options. Larger projects are much more cost effective than panels on the rooftop of a house. And developers look for locations close to electrical substations to allow for easier connections to the electric grid. They look for good terrain, and flat, open farmland is ideal, Pullaro said.

“The more we limit the types, sizes and locations of projects, it will only drive up costs to the ratepayer,” Pullaro said.

According to Pullaro, the problem with these regulations is that they single out solar development, but not the development of farmland into housing or commercial real estate, neither of which provide the benefit of carbon-free electricity.

“For some farmers, they’re in a difficult situation financially – I mean, it’s not easy to be a farmer,” Pullaro said. “And so for some of the farmers, renting land for solar, it’s an income stream that can maybe keep some of the other farm operations going.”

“It’s just such a double standard that it’s okay to have big box stores – which are a permanent development — whereas solar is temporary and developers are mitigating the effects of the development so that if the project’s decommissioned, it can be put back to farming use,” Pullaro said.

That’s a common argument made in applications for developing farmland into solar projects — if the land isn’t developed for solar, it could be developed into something else. And solar projects, at least, are only expected to last 20 to 30 years, at which time they can be taken apart and the land can be put back to farming, they say, in even better shape because crops have not been stripping nutrients from the soil.

“For some farmers, they’re in a difficult situation financially – I mean, it’s not easy to be a farmer,” Pullaro said. “And so for some of the farmers, renting land for solar, it’s an income stream that can maybe keep some of the other farm operations going.”

Renting land to solar developers can help landowners, Cole said, about 30 percent of the state’s farmers lease farmland. But with more of that land set aside for solar projects, less is available for the farmers who depend on it.

Relative size and burden

“Those 1 megawatt, 2 megawatt projects — it’s really not that big,” said Pullaro.. “And subjecting them to a process designed for large power plants, and all the costs that go with it. In time, I’m just not sure how much interest you’ll have in continued solar development.”

Pullaro said the 2017 law already requires larger solar projects to go through a certificate of environmental compatibility and public need process with the siting council, a process he said was intended for large power plants and is more costly and time consuming than the petition for declaratory ruling process that smaller solar projects can use.

For example, Verology, the developer behind a proposal for a 3.5 megawatt solar facility in Burlington, was forced to withdraw it’s petition for the less-restrictive declaratory ruling and re-applied under the more rigorous certificate process, after DEEP determined in December that there could be an impact to core forests. 

“We’re stuck with this unfortunate standard now where solar projects are going through the same process that a 500 megawatt natural gas power plant is going through,” said Pullaro.

A review of siting council records by CT Examiner identified one project intended for prime farmland, but smaller than 2 megawatts, since the 2017 law took effect: a proposal by SunJet for a 1.99 megawatt solar array on a portion of a Bethlehem dairy farm that is designated as prime farmland. 

“I know that seems like a small amount, but we don’t have a lot of prime and important farmland left in Connecticut, and we’re losing a lot to development,” Gazillo said. “So we need to save as much as we can.”

Other projects, like the 1.99 megawatt LSE Pictor proposal in Winchester, and the 1.9 megawatt Gaylord Mountain Solar Project proposed in Hamden, fall just below the 2 megawatt threshold for review. Those projects were planned for wooded land not covered by Horn’s bill, though the Environment Committee agreed on Wednesday to consider solar developments on both farmland and forests during the session.

The 1.99 megawatt SunJet proposal would cover about 11.8 acres of a hayfield on a working dairy farm in Bethlehem with about 6,800 solar panels. About 4.1 acres of those acres are considered prime farmland according to SunJet’s application.

Representatives for SunJet could not be reached for comment on this story. 

Cole said that the impact goes beyond the acres used to actually stand up the solar panels, about 4 to 5 acres for a 1 megawatt project. Close said there is also land cleared for access to the panels, land needed for battery storage, and land needed for connections. According to Gazillo, a 1 megawatt project could impact 10 or more acres of farmland.

“I know that seems like a small amount, but we don’t have a lot of prime and important farmland left in Connecticut, and we’re losing a lot to development,” Gazillo said. “So we need to save as much as we can.”

The average size of a farm in Connecticut hovers around 70 acres, often less than half of which may be tillable cropland, Cole said. 

“Loss of that acreage really starts to add up, and is incredibly impactful moving forward,” Cole said.

There are currently six applications before the Connecticut Siting Council seeking to place solar arrays on prime farmland – though one is for Stonington’s Elmridge Golf Course, which hasn’t been farmed for a half-century.

The five other applications, if approved, would cover about 310.7 acres of prime farmland – 607 acres in total – and generate a total of 136.6 megawatts of power. The vast majority of that generation and impact would come from the massive 120 megawatt Gravel Pit Solar project proposed for East Windsor.

Gravel Pit, taking its name from the sand and gravel quarries that make up part of its proposed 485 acre imprint, would cover about 230 acres of prime farmland, and 124 acres of forest, according to its application.

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