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HARTFORD, CT – A new report both documents and warns about the surge in proposals to use farmland and forest for the construction of large solar electricity-generating facilities in Connecticut.

The Council on Environmental Quality published a draft report aimed at finding ways to stimulate solar energy facilities in Connecticut in places other than farms and forests.

It suggested the state develop policies that will guide solar photovoltaic power facilities toward brownfields, industrial lands, and other disturbed areas.

“As a state working hard toward a sustainable economy, we should not be pitting solar energy against agriculture and forests,” CEQ Council Chairman Susan Merrow said.

“We can have green power and green farms and forests, but we need to find ways to steer the power facilities toward industrial properties and other previously-developed land.”

Some of the draft report’s conclusions include:

–  In an average year, the state preserves about 1,700 acres of farmland and forest land. In 2016, the area of farmland and forest selected by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and/or approved by the Connecticut Siting Council for development of solar facilities nearly equaled that amount.

– Connecticut is unprepared to guide the placement of solar facilities to minimize their environmental damage.

– There are two decision points where state agencies influence the location of utility-scale solar facilities: DEEP’s selection of facilities to supply Eversource and United Illuminating with electricity from renewable sources, and the Connecticut Siting Council’s approval of the facilities. The draft report calls the Siting Council’s approval “nearly automatic” because of outdated statutes.

Karl Wagener, CEQ executive director, said there has been a “surge in utility-scale solar energy facilities,” as a result of state laws encouraging renewable energy. 

“However, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has been selecting projects based almost entirely on price, which leads developers to propose the facilities on farmland and forest avoiding, as most developers do, the costs and uncertainties of building on brownfields or other previously-developed properties,” Wagener said.

“Regulatory approval of the facilities is nearly automatic and does not take into account the impact to farmland or forests, because of the language of the outdated laws. Connecticut can do better, but currently is not prepared to guide these energy facilities toward appropriate sites,” Wagener said.

The report asks the question: “Could Connecticut identify non-conservation state properties that might be suitable for solar photovoltaic facilities and lease them to bidders?’’

“To do so,” the report states, “might conserve private forest and farmland and generate revenue for the state. Potential lands might include highway corridors and institutional land. The Council recommends completion of an inventory of such lands, as the benefits of their development for renewable energy could exceed the costs.”

The report also notes that other states have recognized the contradiction inherent in sacrificing valuable natural and economic resources for electricity production, and have taken action – from moratoriums to new legislation.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for DEEP, said the agency held a workshop Tuesday, on the subject and the CEQ report is timely – and helpful.

“DEEP recognizes that the siting of renewable energy installations is an issue that needs to be examined in greater depth,” Schain said. “In determining where these power sources will be located, we need to make certain we strike the right balance between our drive for cheaper, cleaner power and protection of natural resources and lands of high conservation and agricultural value in our state.”

Schain said the workshop “provided additional insight and information that will allow us to assess issues related to the selection of locations for solar, wind, and other grid-scale clean energy projects – and to then determine if we need to make any changes in our process and criteria for site selection in the future.”

Merrow said it is important for everyone to work together.

“The CEQ is focusing on the legal responsibilities of state agencies to select and approve renewable-energy projects” explained Merrow. “We do not want to restrict the rights of individual landowners.”

“This is a draft report,” Merrow concluded. “We think the relevant facts are in the report. Now we are seeking more input as to what the state should do to stimulate renewable energy production in appropriate places, away from farms and forests.”

The report is on the CEQ’s website at www.ct.gov/ceq. The public is encouraged to submit ideas and comments until Jan. 18. The Council expects to discuss the report further at its Jan. 25 meeting.