North Stonington Solar Project Wins Provisional Approval

NORTH STONINGTON — Despite concerns from some council members and town officials about the environmental impact, Connecticut Siting Council members indicated they would narrowly approve a proposed solar project in North Stonington.

In an informal straw poll taken during their Thursday meeting, three council members indicated support for a proposal by Nashville-based Silicon Ranch to clear cut about 44 acres around an abandoned gravel quarry in North Stonington to develop the site into a 9.9 megawatt solar farm

Two council members said they would not support the project given the close proximity of property boundaries, and its potential to disrupt wetlands and vernal pools on the site.

Council member Robert Silvestri, the former manager of environmental operations at United Illuminating, said the developers were trying to “shoehorn” the project into too small a space. He said that in most projects when a developer switches to using higher wattage panels, the total number of panels is reduced. 

Silicon Ranch changed its initial proposal to include higher-wattage panels, and grouped the panels closer together to limit the amount of wetlands the project would disturb – but it added about 654 panels in the process, Silvestri said. 

The company previously told the council that grouping the panels closer together reduced the amount of electricity each panel would produce because of shading on the site, so it added more panels to make up the difference in wattage.

“In other projects I’ve reviewed, we’ve seen a marked decrease in the number of panels when using higher-wattage panels, which led to an ultimate decrease – and, at times, substantial decrease in the overall footprint of projects,” Silvestri said. “I feel more can be done to reduce the overall footprint, including the potential to use even higher-wattage panels.”

Silvestri said the number of wetlands and vernal pools on the site was a concern, especially considering the proposal to clear-cut about 44 acres of trees could significantly alter the habitats of those wetlands.

Silvestri said he was also “disappointed” that the current project “does not come close” to the initial proposal selected by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental in 2016. The original plans included energy storage and a micro-grid.

Those changes since Silicon Ranch acquired the project from the original applicant have been the root of opposition to their proposal. 

North Stonington town officials supported the initial proposal, which was planned for an abandoned gravel quarry on the property, but opposed it when Silicon Ranch shifted the proposed panels to a forested section after discovering wetlands and vernal pools in and around the pit.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection declined to release documents to CT Examiner that would explain why the North Stonington project was selected over other proposals – including how facets of the original plan, such as being sited in a gravel pit or including energy storage, factored into the selection.

DEEP said records CT Examiner requested, including the qualitative and quantitative analyses of the project, amounted to trade secrets that were not subject to Freedom of Information Laws. 

Silvestri said he would not support the project during the informal straw poll of council members at Thursday’s meeting, and said that if the council were to approve it, they should include several conditions – including that Silicon Ranch should submit a spill prevention and response plan, a comprehensive species protection plan, and a comprehensive landscaping and buffering plan.

Of the three council members who said they would support the project, two said the conditions Silvestri suggested should be included, and council staff were directed to include them in their draft opinion.

The vote taken on Thursday was an informal “straw poll,” and the council will still have to give approval to that draft opinion and the plan at a future meeting before the project can move ahead.

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