Last month, Connecticut lawmakers heard testimony on Senate Bill 412 got a peak into the state’s future energy problems where conservation and land use issues intersects with the need for farmers need to make enough money to stay in business and the need for cheap solar electricity in Danbury, Mansfield, or Hamden.
Proposed Senate Bill 412 is “an act restricting the use of incentives for the development of solar arrays on agricultural land.” While at first blush it sounds like a cautious measure to slow down development, the bill’s current wording puts pits conservationists against developers of pollution-free solar energy and many of the state’s farmers. Many conservationists see a growing threat to productive farmland and ecologically sensitive forests being converted over to utility scale solar farms. By taking valuable farmland out of production in favor of building utility solar energy production, this will not only change the character historic preservation of many Connecticut rural towns and villages but also potentially threaten endangered and threaten species.
Farmers, meanwhile, want on-site energy deployment to offset their farming energy usage and as a way to make extra money. Developers also counter that solar farms are far cheaper to convert back to agriculture use. Arrays are built at ground surface, so valuable topsoil is left in place. Unlike other power generation plants or suburban subdivisions, solar arrays don’t require underground sewer or water connections.
Testimony supporting and opposing the bill came from diverse interests:
- The Connecticut League of Conservation Voters (CTLCV) supports the bill but with revisions.
- Connecticut Fund for the Environment opposes the bill saying that while they support protecting important farmland and forest, the proposal to restrict siting is “premature and unnecessary.”
- The Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) supports the bill saying the bill seeks to protect agricultural land by restricting the use of incentives for solar development thereon.
- Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development (CTRC&D) opposed the bill, pointing out that SB 412 may actually hinder the development of renewable energy that helps keep Connecticut farmer in business. Instead, dual-use planning for agriculture and solar installations should be developed and incentivized.
- The Connecticut Sierra Club also opposes the bill saying the “avowed goals could be accomplished by DEEP taking action to support tiered incentive for clean energy facilities in part on minimizing environmental impacts from different land uses.”
- Rob Klee, Commissioner for Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), testified that siting renewable energy sources could be regulated by evaluating the environmental and land use impacts and that such criteria could be used to approve or deny solar projects, especially when such projects are located on “prime and important farmland or historic preservation properties, or projects that clear core forests or impact endangered, threatened, and special concern species and significant natural communities.”
What is certain here is that as Connecticut develops its renewable energy capabilities, lawmakers will need to entertain more innovative ideas that conserve natural resources while encouraging the environmentally-friendly energy generation that also helps protect those resources. To be sure, this wasn’t the final legislative skirmish. While no further movement on the bill seems pending, it’s likely that all those concerned are watching how DEEP handles further rural solar permitting and development.