SOUTHINGTON — A state agency has questioned the appropriateness of installing solar arrays on farmland.
The scale of such proposals, including a proposed 4.7-megawatt solar farm that would be installed across 31 acres of farmed land on East Street, is concerning to the state Council on Environmental Quality. Since this past June, the council has reviewed that proposal and five others to construct renewable energy projects in areas containing “prime farmland soil,” its executive director Peter Hearn wrote in an Aug. 28 letter to the Connecticut Siting Council.
The Siting Council is the agency with the authority to approve such projects. The Council on Environmental Quality, via Hearn's letter, was issuing its advisory opinion on the proposal in Southington.
The plot of land at 1012 East St. totals 103 acres and is owned by the Catholic Cemeteries Association. The Karabin family, whose attorney has filed an application with the Siting Council to participate as an intervenor, has farmed the land for years, raising hay for livestock, along with other crops. Hartford-based solar energy developer Verogy, LLC has proposed the project along with a handful of others around the state.
Verogy, in its petition filed in July with the Siting Council, estimated the more than 4.7-megawatt project could potentially generate enough electricity "to power 1,126 average homes for one year."
Southington Solar One is one of several in which the developers have proposed sheep grazing on farmland as a substitute to the existing agricultural activity, Hearn noted in his letter to the Siting Council.
But, Hearn wrote, such a proposal “is not a remedy for the loss of prime farmland” that state lawmakers had intended to preserve.
“For a solar energy installation to have no impact on the status of prime farmland soils on the site, decommissioning and restoration would have to be successful at the end of the anticipated twenty-five year life of the solar panels,” Hearn wrote. But, he added, whether that land can be restored as farmland “is an unproven promise.”
“... The probability that the site will never return to farming needs to be acknowledged,” Hearn wrote, later noting that preserving farmland and developing renewable energy are essential to the state's future. The priorities are conflicted when farmland becomes the proposed site of a renewable energy project.
Hearn noted since June the Council on Environmental Quality has reviewed six different proposals totaling 330 acres of farmland that is either active or potentially usable. The council has reviewed proposals covering more than 540 acres of farmland over the past eight months, he wrote. By comparison, Hearn noted, the state acquired 773 acres of farmland for preservation in all of 2019.
“The continuing accretion of multiple individual decisions to site solar facilities on productive agricultural land has cumulative regional economic and ecological implications that go beyond the loss of prime soils,” Hearn wrote. For example, the loss of farmland could impact both permanent and migratory species.
“The Council urges the Siting Council to weigh the cumulative regional economic and ecological factors when assessing the scale and location of each proposed siting,” Hearn wrote.
Patrick McGloin, spokesman for Verogy, acknowledged the Council on Environmental Quality's comments in an email to the Record-Journal. McGloin wrote Verogy “has worked extensively with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture to design a project that will generate renewable, zero carbon energy while preserving as much farmland as possible. We’re hopeful that all the agencies responsible for evaluating projects like ours agree that Southington Solar One will deliver much-needed clean energy to Connecticut’s residents.”
Meanwhile, other parties, including the Southington Planning & Zoning Commission, are opposed to the project.
Attorney Keith Ainsworth, a member of the Council On Environmental Quality, abstained from the council's interrogatory on the project last week because he is also representing the town of Southington while the Siting Council deliberations are underway.
Ainsworth wrote the town's concerns about the project stem from the site's use as a working farm. “The Town would ideally prefer Southington Solar One to pursue an alternate location for this project, most notably not on the limited usable precious farmland that is left in Southington,” he wrote, noting farmland preservation is a strategic priority in the town's current conservation plan.
“The solar installation will take prime farming acreage out of agriculture for decades with no surety that the land will return to that capacity in the future,” Ainsworth wrote.