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New England Solar Booms—But Erosion and Other Problems Pile Up (1)

March 10, 2020, 10:00 AM; Updated: March 10, 2020, 1:50 PM

Solar company Greenskies Renewable Energy LLC was thrilled when Connecticut chose the company to build a large solar project that would help the state meet its clean energy goal.

But three years on, the 18-megawatt project is still in the blueprint phase. Local environmental and neighbor groups fear the Waterford, Conn., proposal will lead to runoff and environmental degradation, and are urging regulators to reject it.

“These ill-conceived, quickly installed solar arrays are damaging our landscape,” according to Save the River-Save the Hills Inc., a group devoted to protecting the region’s Niantic River Estuary.

As states around the country ramp up solar projects to help meet their clean energy goals, environmental and citizen groups are complaining about forest clear-cutting, erosion, and rainwater runoff. The groups are calling for new siting rules, tougher permitting, and incentives to encourage building on former industrial sites and rooftops.

The problem is particularly acute in New England, where forests are cleared and hilltops leveled to make way for new solar arrays. Pushback is rare in the Midwest, where solar arrays are likely to be placed on fallow, open farms, according to Steve Amann, municipal services manager at Baxter & Woodman Inc., a civil engineering firm in Illinois.

Some states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota have toughened siting rules for renewable projects, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Connecticut is considering similar draft rules.

Some other states don’t have rules or agencies to review solar developments. In that case, “local jurisdictions could certainly see themselves without the regulations to address sedimentation and erosion,” said Allison Smith, a Sacramento-based partner at Stoel Rives LLP.

“Land use issues are, not surprisingly, coming to the forefront as solar development becomes more common,” a spokesman at the Solar Energy Industries Association said.

Development ‘Like Any Other’

Concerns about erosion come as solar has boomed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, all of which gave incentives to solar developers.

Massachusetts had just 4 megawatts of solar in 2010 and more than 2,000 megawatts by 2018, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. About a quarter of the 30,000 acres in Massachusetts that was developed or cleared in the five-year period to June 2017 was for solar projects, according to the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

In Connecticut, ground-mounted solar arrays were responsible for the majority of forest and farmland that was cleared between 2005 and 2016, according to the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality.

Solar companies like to build on hillsides to maximize sun exposure, but that’s where erosion is most likely, Massachusetts Audubon Society spokeswoman Heidi Ricci said.

“It’s like any other large-scale development. When you remove the forest cover and plants, it exposes the soil” and runoff results during rainstorms, she said.

“We want solar to continue to develop rapidly, but not at the expense of forests and farmlands,” she said.

Greenskies Modifications

Greenskies originally wanted to place 55,692 panels on 90 cleared acres within 152 forested and hilly acres in rural Waterford, Conn., near wetlands and a stream that drain into the Niantic. The wetlands include three vernal pools, which are critical breeding sites for salamanders and other species, and the stream supports fish, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“This type of aggressive construction schedule” required better controls for rainwater runoff and soil erosion, and a wildlife survey, Linda Brunza, a department environmental analyst, told the Connecticut Siting Council, which reviews large energy projects.

After the council in October 2018 declined to rule on the plan, Greenskies modified its plan. The council voted 5-1 in February to continue to review it, said Lee Hoffman, an attorney representing Greenskies.

Jeff Hintzke, a company spokesman, said Greenskies scaled back its plan to 45,976 panels on 75 cleared acres instead of 90, and agreed to plant local species to control erosion and attract butterflies and bees. The company also agreed to conduct a wildlife survey, and worked with the state environment agency to redesign the stormwater plan, according to Hoffman.

Exposed Soil

Hintzke, the company spokesman, said the soil on hilltops and sides is thinner from years of natural erosion, and when graded for solar arrays, it becomes even more vulnerable.

In Connecticut, environmental officials have issued cease and desist orders in recent years to owners of three solar projects that led to adverse water quality impacts, Brunza said in her 2018 comments to the state siting council. Connecticut issued guidance about runoff for solar companies in January.

“If not properly managed through appropriate design and mitigation measures, stormwater discharged during and after the construction of solar arrays can be a significant source of pollution,” according to the guidance.

Connecticut will also release new stormwater control rules in October that will include a section for solar projects. Solar companies would be required to better control runoff and erosion during and after construction, and they would be inspected regularly, according to the draft rules.

Greenskies’ new proposal complies with the draft rules, even though it will cost more to re-engineer the plans, Hintzke said.

More Inspections

Elsewhere in the region, Rhode Island has issued “a couple” of citations against solar companies in recent years due to erosion, according to Terrence Gray, deputy director for environmental protection at the Department of Environmental Management.

The department has stepped up its inspections and enforcement at solar and other large land-clearing projects. In 2019, Rhode Island announced incentives to site commercial solar on old, industrial sites.

Other states have issued guidance about stormwater rules for solar projects to try to avoid runoff and erosion problems.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued an FAQ in 2016 after state agencies and stakeholders requested it. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also issued an FAQ in January 2019, in response to increased solar developments in the state, to clarify when a solar project would need to obtain a stormwater permit.

In many states, including Massachusetts, decisions about sitings are often made at the local level. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, recognizing the challenges this may pose to towns, issued guidance in 2015 about siting ground-mounted solar projects.

But that isn’t enough, Ricci, from the state Audubon Society, said.

“Smaller communities don’t have the professional staff to manage large-scale projects,” and they are caught off guard, Ricci said.

Greenskies is optimistic its Waterford, Conn., project will win the permits it requires.

“There’s a happy medium somewhere” in which states encourage solar development but virgin forests aren’t being cleared, Hintzke said.

(Updated with fresh link to Connecticut proposed construction rules.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Adrianne Appel in Boston at aappel@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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