With a dash of drama, state picks solar projects

Christmas arrived a couple of days early for two solar power developers chosen Friday by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to build a total of 10 megawatts of clean power that will go into the electric grid.

Despite a tight timetable that prompted complaints, developers proposed 21 projects, with the winners promising clean energy at lower-than-expected prices. The two projects could power about 10,000 homes.

HelioSage, a major clean energy developer based in Charlottesville, Va. was chosen to develop a five-megawatt solar ground array on a 50-acre site at 407 South Road in Somers.

A limited liability corporation called GRE 214 East Lyme was chosen to develop East Lyme Solar Park, also five megawatts, on property it owns at 44 Grassy Hill Road. It had been slated for a housing, but has sat idle since 2008, according to information provided by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office.

GRE includes Greenskies Renewable Energy, a Connecticut company, said Andrew Doba, a Malloy spokesman. The chairman of its board is Robert Landino, a former state legislator whose company, CenterPlan Development, is managing the reconstruction of the rest areas on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

These projects are part of one of the first programs to get off the ground among the dozens in the energy bill passed during the last legislative session. The program requires the building of 30 megawatts of clean generation – solar, wind or hydropower.

Twenty megawatts are to be built by the utilities — Connecticut Light and Power and United Illuminating — and would be the first major generation facilities they would own since deregulation. That process will be handled by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The projects announced Friday are private and were approved by a group from DEEP, the office of the Consumer Counsel and representatives of the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority.

They were chosen from among 21 projects submitted by 13 different developers, representing a total of 70 megawatts. All were solar except for one wind project. It was proposed by BNE of West Hartford for Colebrook, where earlier this year it won approval for two wind projects over the objections of many residents.

HelioSage and GRE 214 now have 180 days to enter into 20-year power purchase agreements with the utilities.

“This selection process validates our new approach to energy policy in Connecticut,” said Gov. Malloy in a prepared statement. He called the results of the RFP “a clear sign that entrepreneurs and clean technology innovators are excited about the new approach Connecticut has taken.”

But it was the RFP that stirred a great deal of discontent.

DEEP gave project developers only a week’s notice. The request for proposals went out on Dec. 9 with a Dec. 16 deadline. DEEP wanted to take advantage of a federal stimulus program set to end on Dec. 31. Clean energy projects like these are eligible for 30 percent federal tax credits after the project is complete. The stimulus program has been making those funds available as up-front grants.

“It would have been better had DEEP put out a notice that they intended to put out an RFP,” said Paul Michaud, executive director of the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Business Association, a business group that promotes the use of renewable energy. Michaud is also an attorney with Murtha, Cullina and had several clients who applied for projects – none was chosen.

“A seven day proposal turnaround is almost unheard of,” he said. “The developers were literally working 24/7 on these proposals. One project developer literally fell asleep at her desk, she told me, and I believe her.”

Jonathan Schrag, DEEP’s deputy commissioner in charge of energy said developers have had a head’s up since July, when the legislation that created the program was signed into law.

“It was an overwhelming response. It was an extremely competitive field,” he said. “We are changing the way government works. The world in which procurement takes six months and then there’s a 30-day comment period will no longer be the case.”

He pointed out that the electric rates proposed in each of the two approved projects — an average of 22.2 cents per kilowatt hour — are among the lowest anywhere in the country.

“What drove selection was showing how cheaply you can deliver the electricity to Connecticut ratepayer,” he said, adding it accounted for about 85 percent of the choice. Local economic benefit accounted for the other 15 percent.

And that has some folks worried about two things. One — that major national companies will be able to undercut pricing offered by smaller in-state companies. And two — that with out-of-state developers, not all jobs involved in a project would be Connecticut-based.

“There has to be an economic-development component to this,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of the industry group Solar Connecticut.

Trahan said he would have preferred smaller projects to showcase more companies: “There has to be a good balance between making sure ratepayers’ dollars are spent wisely and most of the dollars circulate in the Connecticut economy.”

Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.