Despite state OK, East Lyme solar project worries some residents

East Lyme - Several residents are bringing concerns to the town about a 35-acre solar field on Grassy Hill and Walnut Hill roads, even after it met the state's environmental regulations, because they say the state has not addressed their concerns.

The solar field will generate 5 megawatts of renewable energy for the electric grid. The state Siting Council earlier this month approved the project's final plan from a limited liability company owned by Middletown-based Greenskies Renewable Energy.

Construction has begun on the field, which developers say will provide clean, local energy. But at Wednesday's Board of Selectmen meeting, some residents shared an array of concerns, some of which they had expressed during a Siting Council public hearing in the spring. They questioned placing the panels near residences, and raised environmental concerns and worries about noisy construction up to their property lines.

"Neighbors so far have not gotten any answers," Barbara Wingardner of Walnut Hill Road said.

Greenskies, which was founded by its president, Michael Silvestrini, and state Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, has a 20-year agreement to supply renewable energy to United Illuminating and Connecticut Light & Power, Greenskies Senior Vice President Andrew Chester said on Tuesday.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection gave the East Lyme solar field, as well as a Somers solar center, the green light to secure purchasing agreements with electricity companies, according to a DEEP document.

The East Lyme solar field could power up to 750 homes with fewer nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and carbon dioxide emissions than fossil fuels, according to the original proposal by GRE 314 East Lyme LLC, which owns the property where the solar field will be located.

"We're adding clean, renewable energy," Chester said, adding that the 16,874 panels will enable power companies to distribute locally generated electricity. The panels work by capturing energy during daylight hours, and the field provides "great southern exposure," he said.

In the spring, the Siting Council ruled that the solar project would "not have a substantial adverse environmental effect" and would meet state DEEP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The council approved the project's development plan on Sept. 5.

The developer's construction company is now grading the land, and the solar panels should be brought on-site by November, Chester said. The plan also calls for upgrading power lines on nearby streets, he added.

Residents' concerns

Some people who live near the site, such as Robert Hudyma, whose Grassy Hill property abuts the field, disagree that the panels will not hurt the environment. Hudyma said he has concerns about placing solar panels within a mile of any residence.

He worried the inverters - components to funnel energy from the panels to the grid - could emit radio-magnetic waves that could cause illnesses, and potential toxins could eventually leach from panels into nearby wells and rivers. He said that some of the panels are made overseas and that he was worried about the regulations governing manufacturing processes in those countries.

"What kind of toxins are in these things?" Hudyma asked. "No one is addressing that."

In its ruling, the Siting Council said the solar panels won't "produce any air emissions" during operation and will have "no adverse environmental effect on air or water quality." The project is using Yingli 300 W and EcoSolargy Titan 280 W panels with four inverters, according to the Siting Council. Yingli Solar is headquartered in Baoding, China, and EcoSolargy is in Irvine, Calif., according to their websites. The council stated that the solar panels and equipment "are resistant to fire."

Other neighbors say construction, which the company had said would take place between 6 a.m. and sunset Mondays through Saturdays, will be disruptive.

Barbara Wingardner described noise that sometimes rattles dishes in her home, and said she needs to change her well's filter frequently due to the construction. She also worried that the inverters, which she said create noise, may be placed near residences. In an interview, Wingardner said a company is inspecting her well since she found it was clogged with a gray material that she believes was construction debris.

Hudyma said he had an issue with a contractor that has since been resolved. The contractor, he said, had trespassed onto his property, cut down a cherry tree, moved a boulder and damaged a gate.

Next steps

Tom Wingardner, Barbara Wingardner's husband, said the town has the responsibility to look after its residents. He said at Wednesday's meeting that he has contacted employees at Town Hall, who have told him to call the Siting Council, which he said does not return his calls.

East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica said he would take full responsibility for the issues as the town's leader and would ensure that the town does everything in its control, including examining concerns over setbacks and monitoring contractors.

"We will step up to that," Formica said. "We will be there standing with you." He added that residents should take his card, with his office and cellphone number, and call him with any problems.

Melanie Bachman, the council's acting executive director, said she had spoken to the town's zoning official and was aware of residents' concerns. She also forwarded a letter from Hudyma to the developer's attorney on Sept. 10.

The Siting Council has not yet received a response from the project developer, but she said the developer needs time to investigate the concerns.

k.drelich@theday.com

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