Revival of Waterford solar plan reason for concern
Save the River-Save the Hills would like to inform the public about an ongoing threat to the water quality of the Niantic River and two of its major tributaries (Oil Mill Brook and Stony Brook) in Waterford. The developer of a proposed solar array installation, which was "denied without prejudice" by the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) last December largely because of the negative effects it would have on the two native trout streams on each side of it, has indicated they will be moving forward with the installation.
A “denial without prejudice” allows the developer to return with another plan under the same request for proposal. We feel it is important the public know, because if this project is allowed to move forward, prospective adverse impacts will detrimentally affect not only the water quality of the adjacent brooks, but the Niantic River and ultimately the Long Island Sound.
The current proposal is to install 55,000 solar panels on approximately 90 acres of hilly terrain off Oil Mill Road in Waterford. Installing a solar array of this size on the hilly terrain between two streams that currently support native brown and brook trout is irresponsible development. The developer already has a record of destroying a tributary to the Niantic River in East Lyme (see photo of East Lyme watershed above) resulting in a lawsuit against the developer by downstream landowners. Looking at the devastation after sequential two-inch rain events on the Walnut Hill Road solar installation gives a daunting forecast for the proposed Waterford site which is three times the size.
The CSC wisely denied the developer's petition to develop the Waterford site because it felt the project would adversely affect the environment, causing huge amounts of runoff on both sides of the property. These are not "solar fields,” they are industrial structures made of glass, metal and concrete which are installed on soil that has been physically compacted during the installation process. As seen at the East Lyme site, these ground-mounted solar arrays have a record of destroying water quality around them. The stormwater systems in the solar installations in East Lyme were inadequate to handle the actual volume of runoff generated.
The proposed site in Waterford uses the same faulty engineering and will likely cause similar issues – on a scale three times larger than the one in East Lyme, adversely affecting two different native-trout-stream tributaries to the Niantic River. The Waterford site is a mere 4,000 feet from the Niantic River. The river will suffer if this project goes forward.
In 2014, the design of the solar array installation in East Lyme involved marked earth disturbance over an approximately 30-acre area. Topsoil was stripped and removed from the site and does not appear to have been replaced after mass grading was performed. Site disturbance compacted the native soils to such a degree that rainfall even from the grassed areas runs off and does not infiltrate into the soil.
The engineering design incorrectly considered the solar panels in the array to be “pervious” and thus grossly underestimated the volume of runoff. Even after completion, increased runoff volumes continue to cause adverse impacts to the unnamed brook that runs into Cranberry Meadow Brook and ultimately the Niantic River.
These issues existed in a ground-mounted solar installation in Pomfret, resulting in the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection fining the developer $575,000 for non-compliance with its permit and for the resulting destruction to wetlands by “sediments from the Site going off-site and blanketing thousands of square feet of adjoining wetlands…”
A much smaller proposed solar installation in Killingworth was denied approval in May with the CSC citing water quality issues as the main reason for denial. Current engineering standards used for ground-mounted solar are inadequate because they are based on the incorrect assumption that the solar arrays are on liquid pervious sites. In most cases, however, they are not. The construction of ground-mounted solar arrays creates an impervious site and should be required to have the Low Impact Development engineering required of buildings. It should not be allowed at all in a core forest surrounded by trout streams.
Also, cutting 90 acres of core forest to install 55,000 solar panels — replacing nature's free carbon recycling and storage with hardscape, metal and glass — does not result in a net decrease in carbon emissions in New England. The conversion of active cropland, farm meadow, and forests to a solar array is environmentally irresponsible as these green areas are effective carbon sinks. The vegetations take in carbon dioxide to grow and release oxygen to the air. Carbon is sequestered in the woody material and in the soil in these areas and remain there, unless disturbed, for decades to millennia.
In 2017, the Connecticut state legislature passed a law that effectively bans cutting core forest to put in solar arrays. It states: “The act requires the DEEP commissioner, when considering proposals received after July 1, 2017 in response to certain energy-related solicitations, to consider (1) their environmental impact, including the impact on prime farmland and core forests, and (2) the reuse of sites with limited development opportunities, such as brownfields and landfills.”
Unfortunately for the Waterford forest, the developer petitioned the siting council on a request for proposal that was applied for prior to the new law. That is the only reason this proposal to cut down a core forest has been allowed to continue. It should be stopped.
While the installation of solar arrays has a seemingly appealing environmental and certainly federal-tax abatement appeal, each solar panel only converts about 26% of the sun’s energy into power every year, with this efficiency decreasing by roughly 0.5% per year. Additionally, when the lack of sunny days in Connecticut is accounted for on a yearly basis, the power generated by one of these large arrays is only 22% of the stated power output. Finally, there is currently no present method for the recycling of solar panels.
Brook and brown trout populations are on the decline in Connecticut because of habitat destruction such as siltation caused by solar field installation. Let's protect those we have left and not turn them into drainage ditches. Let's be smart about solar and put solar panels where they belong — on already developed property like a large warehouse rooftop or even a landfill that's been properly capped. Let's keep the forests surrounding our rivers thriving and our rivers clean.
Deb Moshier-Dunn is the vice president of Save the River-Save the Hills, Inc. John P. Jasper is a board member of the Niantic River Water Committee and a member of both the Nitrogen Working Group and Trout Unlimited.