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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    To protect ecosystem, improve balance on critical regulatory panel

    Connecticut law requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2001 levels by the year 2050 — and to do it without discouraging industry or weakening the state's economy. Intermediate goals, including a 45 percent reduction in the next 10 years, are just as ambitious.

    The state's Comprehensive Energy Strategy wisely recognizes, however, that in an ecosystem nothing stands alone. Carrying out the mandate requires a string of different public and private tactics that will use energy more efficiently; generate it with fewer greenhouse gas emissions; and foster elements that balance out emissions.

    Energy and the environment are naturally competing interests, but one environmental solution can also be the bane of another. It is perilously easy to undercut the balance while attempting to make progress in cutting emissions.

    To provide expertise on what could happen to an ecosystem is why the Connecticut Siting Council is statutorily required  to have two qualified ecologists on the board. The council's approval is needed for locating — "siting" — electric generating, transmission and storage facilities. 

    Right now the board has two vacancies and one qualified ecologist. By law, the governor appoints five "public members" to the board, among them the two ecologists. Gov. Ned Lamont has yet to appoint at least one more. Energy production proposals are coming in thick and fast, however, and some may cause harm out of proportion to their benefits. The council needs all the expertise it can muster.

    Solar panel field siting proposals, in particular, have become a significant subject for the council's agenda. The council has just received a request to reopen a proposal from Greenskies for solar paneling on Oil Mill Road in Waterford, which it denied in 2018. The citizen environmentalist group Save the River-Save the Hills, has fought the proposal, which would clear 75 acres of woodland for 45,976 panels under the latest version. 

    An East Lyme property owner sued a Greenskies subsidiary over "virtual clearcutting" and siltation of his property and local streams. A member of the Niantic River Watershed Committee told The Day last fall that expertise was lacking in the review. Two more eastern Connecticut proposals are coming up. Quinebaug Solar LLC has asked to reopen its application to build a massive 50-megawatt solar voltaic field on 561 acres of 29 privately owned properties in Canterbury and Brooklyn. A much smaller, 1.95-megawatt proposal for 13 acres off Short Hills Road in Old Lyme has caught the attention of environmentalists, who want the siting council and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to hear their viewpoints.

    Michael W. Klemens, a seven-year former member of the siting council board, has been sounding alarms about the environmental impact of solar fields when there is clear-cutting — as in East Lyme and potentially in Old Lyme and Waterford — but even when the site is largely open fields. He asks why the state does not seek to to put such developments along highways, for instance, or in other developed areas where the drainage and habitats are already artificial. It's a good question, and one that the siting council should be considering when asked for approvals.

    When the council denied Greenskies' Waterford petition in 2018, it gave three reasons: impact on water quality, storm drainage and wildlife, including birds. What the council will decide about the Oil Mill Road site should depend not only on what it can allow but also on what it should allow, in the big picture. And in a development as huge as the Quinebaug proposal, the effects would inevitably alter the ecology of a pristine part of Connecticut, a tiny state that can't afford to be giving pristine away.

    Above all, don't make things worse. Governor Lamont, appoint one if not two more ecologists to the siting council, and hear their expertise along with that of the engineers and developers. 

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.