February 4, 2019

As solar prices continue to fall, developers say state's restrictive siting policies inhibit industry growth

Photo | HBJ File
Photo | HBJ File
A technician from Norwich-based Lantern Energy working on a solar array. Large-scale solar farms have grown increasingly cost competitive in the state, but impediments to the industry's growth still exist.
Mary Sotos, Deputy Commissioner, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Lee Hoffman, Attorney, Pullman & Comley
Paul Michaud, Executive Director, Renewable Energy and Efficiency Business Association

A Green New Deal?

Progressive Democrats in Congress have recently been talking about a Green New Deal, aiming to spur economic growth and protect the environment through major investments in clean and efficient energy.

Now, Connecticut lawmakers may be weighing a Green New Deal of their own.

Gov. Ned Lamont's energy policy transition team drafted recommendations dubbed a Green New Deal, and a proposed bill cosponsored by leading Democratic legislators also carries the same name.

Here are a few top recommendations from the Lamont transition team:

• Prevent the legislature from budget-balancing raids of ratepayer funds meant for energy efficiency.

• Mandate that utilities acquire and sell 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. The policy group also called for accelerating renewable targets in the nearer term.

• Procure 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030.

• Expand and accelerate the state's Lead By Example program, which funds energy efficiency in state buildings as well as clean vehicle fleets.

• Play a leading role in an envisioned cap-and-invest program for transportation. The state already participates in carbon-pricing auctions for power plants.

As Connecticut's environmental goals have grown increasingly ambitious, one type of renewable-energy technology has emerged as a leader when it comes to lower costs — utility-scale solar farms.

The sprawling multi-megawatt facilities, comprising thousands of individual solar panels that can cover more than 100 acres, have grown steadily cheaper since 2012, leading the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to award more of them long-term contracts to supply clean power to the state's two electric utilities.

In the past seven years, the cost of energy from new solar farms selected by DEEP in competitive-bidding processes has fallen almost 79 percent, and is now nearly on par with the cost of building a new natural gas plant, state officials said.

"I think no one in 2012 would have predicted that the trajectory would have gone down that quickly," said DEEP Deputy Commissioner Mary Sotos.

So far, only a handful of solar farms have been built in the state, but more than 15 have been greenlit by DEEP since 2013.

And now the solar industry is hoping that falling prices, paired with a recently strengthened Democratic majority at the state Capitol and a newly elected governor who has signaled strong support for a progressive clean-energy agenda, can open up more opportunities for development.

But developers also say state policy and local resistance could stunt solar growth.

Solar farms have been unpopular in some towns, particularly among property owners located near proposed developments, who manifest the state's well-known "Not in My Backyard," or NIMBY, attitude. There's been at least one lawsuit against a solar farm development in New Milford on Candlewood Mountain, where residents are concerned about deforestation and other impacts to the environment.

The group Rescue Candlewood Mountain, one of the plaintiffs appealing the state Siting Council's approval of the solar farm, has this to say on its homepage:

"There should not be a tradeoff between preserving our forests, farms and neighborhoods and clean energy. We believe clear cutting almost 70 acres of core forest (approximately 15,048 trees) for a solar power plant is not the way to protect our environment."

Agricultural and environmental policymakers and agencies, and a few farmers, have also expressed concern about installing panels on usable land, leading the state to adopt stringent rules in recent years that restrict where solar farms can be located. Not all farming interests are in favor of the new rules, passed in 2017. Some have said they need the extra financial help a solar developer can bring.

"Connecticut has moved from NIMBY to 'BANANA' — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything," said Lee Hoffman, an energy, environmental and telecom attorney at Pullman & Comley, who represents the developer of a Simsbury solar farm that last year negotiated through some local opposition. "You're sending a message to the developer community that development is not welcome here."

Costs matter

Finding cheaper sources of renewable energy is important because moving toward clean power generation, which Connecticut has done aggressively in recent years, is expensive and the state already has some of the highest electricity prices in the country.

In fact, energy generated by so-called "Class I" renewable sources — think solar, wind, fuel cells, landfill gas, and several other technologies — cost Connecticut ratepayers $250 million more in 2017 than if that energy was generated by a fossil-fuel plant, according to DEEP.

Francis Pullaro, executive director of trade group RENEW Northeast, which advocates for renewables, said much of the state's clean-energy focus should be on big solar farms, which have been getting cheaper because of falling materials costs and the scale they are able to deliver developers.

Pullaro also noted that there's also new momentum about the cost-competitiveness of offshore wind in New England.

To be clear, the electric grid isn't yet ready to do away with fossil-fuel or nuclear power plants and run entirely on intermittent sources like solar and wind, but cost parity is seen as a key milestone to one day reaching that reality, perhaps in the next 30 years.

Farms and forests

Meantime, the solar industry says policy changes are needed to ensure that activity continues at a pace that will help the state meet its clean-energy goals.

Under current law, 40 percent of the electricity generated in Connecticut will have to come from Class I renewables by 2030, but Gov. Ned Lamont's transition team recommended a "Green New Deal" that could include a goal of 100 percent renewables by 2050, in addition to stricter benchmarks in 2025 and 2030. It remains to be seen whether Lamont and the legislature will back those recommendations.

While local opposition can be a challenge, some perceive state law as the bigger barrier to building many more solar farms in Connecticut.

"The bigger issue is actually state policy that is prohibiting these projects," said Paul Michaud, an attorney and executive director of the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Business Association (REEBA). "It's far more of a threat than NIMBYism."

Pullaro said his members want to see the legislature authorize DEEP to select more solar farm projects this year.

But that action may not have as big of an impact, if it's not paired with policy changes that make it easier to erect solar farms in the state, renewables experts say.

In 2017, facing concern from farmers and the state's own agricultural commissioner, the General Assembly passed a law curtailing the siting of solar farms on certain agricultural and forest land.

While it may still be too early to gauge the full impact of the law, Pullman & Comley's Hoffman think it's a negative.

He noted that in DEEP's most recent procurement of "zero-carbon" generators — which for the first time included nuclear plants — six of the nine solar farms selected by DEEP will be located out of state.

That means Connecticut gets the clean energy, but none of the economic impacts — like jobs and tax revenue — from building and maintaining the solar farm.

DEEP's Sotos sees it differently. The latest clean-energy procurement was the first to contain the farmland and forest restrictions, and the state still "saw some of the most competitive pricing that we've seen to date."

She said the results suggest DEEP can focus building solar farms on old industrial sites, gravel pits and other non-sensitive areas, while preserving farms and forests.

"I think that helped us realize we can make those a priority," she said.

Michaud, who is representing the Candlewood Mountain solar developer in the ongoing lawsuit in New Milford, said developers generally view the state's farms and forest law as unusually restrictive and a mismatch with Connecticut's otherwise ambitious targets for renewable energy.

"There's a disconnect in this state that we need to fix," Michaud said, estimating that the law has taken hundreds of sites out of play for solar development.

That mismatch is not lost on other New England states, said Richard Jordan, a wetlands scientist and project manager with TRC Companies Inc., which helps with energy siting and permitting.

Jordan, who is based in Maine, said residents and businesses there sometimes ask him why his solar projects are sending their energy to Connecticut instead of staying in Maine. He said his solar clients would love to sell in Maine, but the Pine Tree State's laws don't have the same requirements for sourcing clean energy.

What Maine gets instead, he added, are the economic benefits of building solar farms.

While farmland and forest restrictions on solar aren't entirely unique to Connecticut, the state's denser population and more expensive property can sometimes make siting a solar farm in New Hampshire or Maine more cost-effective, he said.

However, there are no solar development paradises in the region, Jordan added.

"It's still New England, it's still a bunch of villages," he said. "There's always somebody that doesn't like something about a particular project."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story has been modified to clarify that Connecticut's 2017 solar farmland restrictions are controversial for some in the farming community.

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