New farmland harvest – solar energy – creating political sparks

Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

Kevin Sullivan in front of the solar array on his Suffield farm.

Suffield – “This is beautiful,” Kevin Sullivan proclaimed, navigating his truck at a snail’s pace around the perimeter of about 11 acres of his farmland here. The rows are ramrod straight, perfectly aligned. But no crops here. Solar panels are what’s poking through the dirt – 8,812 of them.

They’re Sullivan’s homegrown effort to fight climate change and, as important, give his longtime nursery and greenhouse operation a new lease on life after winding up in the wrong column of a balance sheet.

Without the income he now gets from leasing his field so it can generate two megawatts of renewable power for a nearby town, “I’d be done,” he said. “There’d be eight houses on this piece. I have to do something with my land if I want to survive.”

Farms around Connecticut are facing the same choice Sullivan did. The result is a growing – pun intended – controversy over siting solar on farm and forestland. It’s pitting farmer against farmer and environmental interest groups against one another, putting state departments at odds, and raising the always explosive issue of private property rights versus state policy.

The problem is widely characterized as a collision of two well-intentioned environmental policies. One pushes and provides financial incentives for more renewable power – solar being the vastly favored choice in Connecticut. The other preserves farmland and forestland for agriculture and open space.

But it turns out farmland especially, and forestland to a lesser degree, make ideal places to site commercial solar farms, which can eat up hundreds of acres. Farmland is clear, well-drained, usually large, often south-facing – just what solar needs. For all those reasons it also tends to be less expensive for solar developers, who are often competing for government incentives that are largely awarded based on the lowest cost.

Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMIRROR.ORG

The solar array spreads out over a distant field on Kevin Sullivan’s Suffield farm.

Throw in the state’s farmers and forest owners facing the difficult financial realities of living off the land, and solar developers who offer a steady, no-heavy-lifting income stream for all or part of their land is pretty enticing.

“Price-based competition is a double-edged sword,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of the industry group Solar Connecticut. “Good in the sense that it helps drive prices down. And we’ve seen that. But bad in the sense that it forces developers to propose solar on the least expensive land that they can find.”

Trahan and others among the various interested parties insist there’s a compromise to be had, but two bills offered so far this legislative session to remedy the situation might be creating even more division.

One, from environment committee co-chair Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, is called: “An act restricting the use of incentives for the development of solar arrays on agricultural land.” Embraced by some in the agricultural and forest preservation community as well as Connecticut Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky, it is sending shudders through renewable energy proponents and garnering no enthusiasm at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

It amounts to a moratorium, say critics, who are mindful of what happened with a more than three-year wind moratorium imposed while siting regulations were formulated. Wind projects have been next to nonexistent since.

Blanket prohibitions, said DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee, “are probably not where we would have our starting point.

“A result that wouldn’t be a good end result is if it’s harder to site solar or clean energy than condos,” Klee said.

Reviczky’s starting point is that the state’s best farmland is a finite resource. “I don’t believe it’s good public policy to incentivize the conversion of the best of the best land to non-agricultural use,” he said.

There’s a cascade effect for farmers, he said, especially those who lease land. If the owner decides solar is a better financial option for his land, the farmer who’s been leasing it will suddenly find himself or herself in competition for land with solar companies that have a lot more money as well as other farmers looking to lease. The result is less land to lease, which probably means it’s also more expensive.

“We’ve got to find the sweet spot,” Reviczky said. “We know that the current system is not working for farming and agriculture.”

Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, chair of the energy and technology committee, believes the sweet spot is in the legislation she and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Branford, co-chair of the environment committee, have proposed. It would inventory available land and other facilities to determine which are best suited for solar systems as well as all other types of energy infrastructure.

It’s a more holistic approach, but critics say it will take too long and, in the meantime, agricultural land will continue to be snatched up. Besides, they say, given the state’s current financial woes, there may be little money for such an undertaking.

Any legislative action probably would require both DEEP and Agriculture Department participation, potential oversight by the Connecticut Siting Council and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, and compliance from local zoning authorities.

Dueling philosophies

The farmland v. solar dispute has been on a slow boil for several years as large commercial projects designed to provide power to the grid for thousands of homes have been built or approved through state or regional incentive programs. Concern began when a five-megawatt project with 23,000 panels was built on 50 acres of Somers farmland in 2013. Another in East Lyme was placed on inactive farmland.

An aerial view of a solar farm in Somers

In Sprague, a 20-megawatt project on about 120 acres of farmland – some active, some not – is expected to be done by the end of the year. And a recently completed three-state renewable energy bidding process okayed a 20-megawatt solar farm in New Milford on forest land and a 50-megawatt project on 500 acres – most of it farmland – straddling Brooklyn and Canterbury.

The controversy hit full boil just after New Year’s with the publication of a report by the state’s environmental watchdog, the Council on Environmental Quality (slated for elimination in Gov. Malloy’s budget), called Energy Sprawl in Connecticut – focused on the use of farm and forest land for solar.

The report stated: “There is an irony in the state’s spending millions of dollars to preserve agricultural and forest land” while “encouraging conversion of similar lands into electricity-generating facilities.”

It claimed the yearly average of preserved lands over the last 10 years was 1,745 acres – 1,125 of farmland and 620 of forestland. In 2016 alone, it said, 1,625 acres were designated for solar – 1,115 acres of forest and 510 of farmland.

A packed January workshop on renewable energy siting with both DEEP and the Department of Agriculture largely focused on the solar/farmland issue. “You could just see where the fault lines are,” said Reed, who called the meeting fractious. “I could really see this sort of fury building up.”

Reed said she does not support the premise of the Miner bill – denying incentives to projects on farmland. “I’m not supporting any kind of ban, but I am supporting a rational approach to figure out the best way to pursue this stuff.

“We’re not saying just look at solar, we’re saying look at the whole galaxy of energy installations,” Reed said.

Not fast enough, said Miner. “In the time that we’ll spend – two or three years – trying to develop a comprehensive list of real estate where we’d like to see it go, the free market, absent some moratorium, is going to continue to eat away at farmland and eat away at forestland.”

Source: CT Council on Environmental Quality

But asked whether he’d favor a moratorium, Miner laughed and took a long pause. “I don’t personally like moratoriums,” he said. “Is there a real hardship with some period of a moratorium so you could figure this out? I don’t know.”

But Bill Dornbos, who heads the Connecticut office of the environmental advocacy group Acadia Center, does. “I’ve been contacted by utility-scale developers who are expressing great concern and nervousness about this because they heard the word moratorium,” he said. “They were worried we were going to go to a place like we were with the wind-power issue.

“Legislation that restricts solar incentives on the basis of land type is probably not the optimal solution in the long term,” Dornbos said.

But Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, usually in agreement with groups like Acadia, prefers Miner’s approach even though, he said, “rather than disincentives, I’d like to see incentives for where we’d like to see these facilities to be located.

“This is a problem that has a solution,” he said.

And one is just about to be tested.

DEEP is using the opportunity of yet another setback in its widely criticized shared clean energy pilot project to try banning projects on prime farmland or core forest.

Shared clean energy – practically speaking, it’s just solar – is a way buildings that are not suitable for solar can share a system in another location. The concept is thriving in a number of states, but Connecticut managed only a small pilot after two years of legislative wrangling.

Administrative problems delayed it a year, and earlier this month DEEP announced that none of the proposals that came in was acceptable. Guidelines were reissued including this stipulation: “The Bidder must attest that the generation site of the Shared Clean Energy Facility does not impact, in whole or in part, Prime Farmland, Historic Preservation Property, or Core Forest.”

The broad goal here, which the various battling factions actually agree on, is to steer solar projects toward other less useful properties. Brownfields are at the top of that list. But they have their problems too.

Brownfields, highways, dual use and other ideas

As one-time industrial sites, brownfields are often contaminated. Remediation can increase costs and slow solar installation considerably. Brownfields also tend to be much smaller than farms and other open spaces. They’re often in urban areas with less flexibility for needed sun exposure and, in many cases, face the wrong way entirely.

Miner and others also advocate placing solar along highways, as Massachusetts has along the Massachusetts Turnpike, though those installations generate a comparatively small amount of power.

Other locations being talked up are shopping center roofs and as coverings for parking lots – again much smaller than farm fields.

Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

Paul Miller, who was outbid by a solar developer for a lease on farmland he used to grow feed for his cows.

Then there are tactics to take the pressure off using solar. Paul Miller has a suggestion. In fact he’s had it for more than four years. That’s how long he’s been pushing to build an anaerobic digester on his Fairvue Farms in Woodstock – a dairy operation that is part of the Farmer’s Cow cooperative. It would use the vast amounts of manure his cows produce to make electricity and heat – way more than he needs.

But state policies governing his ability to essentially sell the excess power to other individuals and businesses – something known as virtual net metering – are capped in such a way as to make an anaerobic digester too expensive. He and many others are looking to increase that cap, if not eliminate it.

In the meantime one of the fields he leases to grow feed for his cows has been scooped up by a solar developer at a price he can’t match, leaving him to compete against other farmers for new land.

“It creates animosity among neighbors,” said Miller, who said solar developers contact him all the time about using land he owns. He’s now considering solar on his barn – something he could have avoided with a digester.

And he’s resigned to higher feed costs, saying, “We have to feed our cows.”

The CEQ in its final report offered several recommendations, including giving additional weight to non-cost factors in renewable energy siting, such as the environmental value of the land. It recommended enhanced incentives for using previously developed land like brownfields. And it recommended stricter oversight, including consideration of environmental factors, by the siting council.

What it did not do is take a page from the Massachusetts playbook, which this month finalized its updated solar incentive policy. In response to similar farmland issues, it rejected an initial idea to ban solar development on farmland and other prime locations. Instead it developed a formula that provides payment based on the type of land being used.

The state is also experimenting with dual-use concepts, such as the solar panels now in place over a cranberry bog in Carver, Mass. The town gets the power.

Cranberries need some shade anyway, said bog owner Michael Paduch. “I was looking for any additional income to keep this dinosaur of a family farm going,” he said.

Dual-use solar is beginning to appear around the country, co-existing with some plants, beekeeping and grazing – as long as the animal isn’t huge or something like a goat, inclined to chew wires and climb on panels.

In the end – the battle over where to allow solar will have to negotiate the thorny issue of private property rights – something no one on any side of the argument advocates usurping.

Sen. Cathy Osten has experienced just about every side of the argument herself.

The tale of Sprague

A Democrat from Sprague, Osten also serves as the town’s first selectman. In that role she had to weigh the value of a solar project on 118 acres of farm and forestland after its original location at an old paper mill fell through.

The project uses two parcels with different owners. One was farmland that was not active. The other was being logged by its owner, who probably would have sold it for development. “I’m happier with the solar array than I am with a subdivision,” Osten said.

Solar will bring in $200,000 in annual tax revenue for the next 20 years, making up for the lost revenue from the paper mill. “It costs us nothing – it doesn’t require us to plow roads; it doesn’t require us to mow grass; it doesn’t require us to expand our schools,” she said.

“What are you going to do with that farmer who needs revenue? …I’ve gone back and forth on this and tried to look at it from all the sides, recognizing the decision we make is telling someone what they can do on their own land,” she said. “There’s so much more to this than just having a linear discussion on should we use prime farmland or not.”

Kevin Sullivan couldn’t agree more – he points to the local jobs created while his system was being installed, the economic benefit to the town buying power, the tax revenue from his system, and the fact that he’s still in business.

“This allows me not only to stay where I was born and raised,” he said. “But for me to stay as a productive resident of Connecticut.”

Courtesy of Lodestar Energy

Solar panels mounted over a cranberry bog in Carver, Mass. Cranberries need some shade anyway, said bog owner Michael Paduch.

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