EAST WINDSOR — The Connecticut Siting Council on Thursday gave approval for the largest solar farm in the northeastern United States to be built in East Windsor.
The council voted unanimously to approve Gravel Pit Solar, a proposed 120 megawatt solar project – enough to power about 23,000 homes – that will be built over a 485-acre site that includes tobacco fields, woods, and sand and gravel quarries.
D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, the New York hedge fund behind the project, told the council in filings that it plans to begin construction as soon as the third quarter of this year, and that the project should be completed in late 2022 or early 2023. The developer did not disclose the expected cost to build the project.
Connecticut agreed to buy 20 MW of the project’s 120 MW as part of a 2018 solicitation for zero-carbon energy proposals. Rhode Island agreed to purchase 50 MW, and the remainder will be sold to smaller utilities and businesses in New England.
East Windsor First Selectman Jason Bowza said that the council’s approval was “certainly not unexpected, but welcome news.” He said the developers have been professional since their first meeting with the town over a year ago, and the two have had a good partnership.
In a November letter to the council, Bowza expressed support for the project, saying the quarry had attracted “illicit activity” including trespassing ATV riders and underage drinking. Repurposing the area will help curtail that, which the town has not been able to do.
The project will cover 485 out of 737.2 acres on several plots of land just north of the town boundary with South Windsor. Those properties include about 230 acres of active farmland, used to grow mainly corn and tobacco, almost considered “prime” farmland. The properties also include about 330 acres of woods – of which 91 acres will be cleared — and about 76 acres of sand and gravel quarries that give the project its name. The quarries are the site that is used illegally by ATV riders, and are also used for firearm target practice, according to the company’s application. The project will require altering most of the quarry and the surrounding agricultural fields.
In his letter, Bowza wrote that the tobacco industry in Connecticut is not as profitable as it once was, which caused the owners to shut down this portion of their farm. Bowza, who was also the former chief of staff for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, wrote that the developer has shown interest in including pollinator habitats on the site, and possibly allowing sheep grazing.
“At the end of the project’s useful life, and after decommissioning, much of the property will be able to be returned to agricultural production,” he wrote.
According to Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt, in a letter to the council, the use of heavy equipment to install the solar project on the farmland will harm the soil, but the effects that will have on future agricultural production on the site is not known. The land will need to be restored when the project is decommissioned.
“The loss of 230 acres of actively used prime farmland soils will likely put additional farms at risk for conversion to non-agricultural use, including development,” Hurlburt wrote. “The Department takes its mission to preserve farmland for future generations as a critical one that greatly benefits the State and its residents. Permitting such large-scale projects on prime farmland would set a poor example for demonstrating the State’s stewardship of its agricultural resources.”
While noting the town’s agricultural history, Bowza told CT Examiner that the town doesn’t own any of the property, so what it’s used for is between the developer and the landowners.
“We really don’t have much of a say in terms of telling somebody what they can or can’t develop on their private land,” he said. “That’s really their business.”
Bowza said that when it is built, the solar farm will immediately become one of the town’s five largest sources of property tax revenue. A tax stabilization agreement requires the owners to pay East Windsor $378,000 a year for the next 20 years, plus a $1.5 million impact payment when construction begins, he said. Every year after 20 years, the annual payment will increase 1 percent, he said.
Along with the tax revenue, Bowza said he hoped the project’s construction would bring jobs to the area.
“If you’re putting up 120 megawatts of solar panels, that’s a lot of jobs,” he said. “Certainly our hope is that some of those will be local, labor jobs, and I think the developer is committed to that.”