Minutes of the December 14, 2016 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Holcombe Conference Room on the fifth floor of 79 Elm Street in Hartford.

PRESENT: Susan Merrow (Chair), Janet Brooks, Alicea Charamut, Lee Dunbar, Karyl Lee Hall, Kip Kolesinskas, Matt Reiser, Charles Vidich, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).

At 9:35 AM, Chair Merrow convened the meeting, noting a quorum. No change to the agenda was proposed. Charamut made a motion to approve the agenda, which was seconded by Dunbar and approved unanimously.

Chair Merrow asked if there were any revisions to the minutes of November 16, 2016. There was none. Brooks made a motion to approve the November 16 minutes, which was seconded by Charamut and approved by all, with Dunbar abstaining because he was not present at the November meeting.

Chair’s Report

Chair Merrow noted that Alison Hilding would not be attending the meeting due to the death of her father and said that the Council extends its sincere sympathy to her and her family.

She reported that she had attended the annual Environmental Summit sponsored by the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters. Charamut contributed to the Summit’s panel on water planning and Wagener to the panel on scarce resources. She said the event was well attended and many legislators attended.

Executive Director’s Report

Wagener reported that the two interns, Cassandra Cronin and Kyle Hall, had completed their internships and said the Council had benefitted greatly from their work. He said that he agreed to serve on the State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan Advisory Board. He explained that in order to receive federal money for outdoor recreation a state must have an approved plan. A survey of residents is planned as part of the process of drawing up the next plan.

He also attended a meeting of the Natural Heritage, Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Review Board to participate in discussion of the anticipated revision of the Comprehensive Open Space Acquisition Strategy. In response to a question from Brooks, Wagener confirmed that the Green Plan is a guidance document, with no legally binding requirements. Wagener noted that the topic of energy facilities being proposed for farmland and forest had come up at the meeting.

Wagener noted that new census data from the Land Trust Alliance had been released. The Alliance’s estimate of the acres preserved by Connecticut land trusts far exceeded DEEP’s estimate; the discrepancy amounted to many tens of thousands of acres. Charamut reported that the Land Trust Alliance estimated that there were 190,193 acres preserved by land trusts in Connecticut. Up until a few years ago, Wagener said, the Council’s annual report had reported how close the state was to its land preservation goal. This indicator could be restored if the Land Trust Alliance’s data proves reliable. Kolesinskas said that it will be important to distinguish between land owned with no restrictions on future disposal and land protected with conservation restrictions.

Wagener passed around a card to the Council from turtle conservationist Barrie Robbins-Pianka that included several chelonian photographs. He reminded the members that Ms. Robbins-Pianka had been instrumental in convening the “turtle summit” at the Legislative Office Building last year which led to DEEP amending its regulations to reduce significantly the number of snapping turtles that can be harvested; the revised regulations are now in effect, he said.

Citizen Complaints

Hearn reviewed briefly a complaint received about possible intrusion into a legally-protected “ancient burial ground” by a developer that appears to have been resolved.

Review of state agency actions

Development of farmland and forest for electricity generation – Wagener began discussion by explaining the changes that had been made to the draft report since it was last reviewed by the Council in November. He pointed out a new text box that announced the selection of 25 bid winners for renewable projects of two to 20 megawatt (MW) capacity; staff could not characterize the projects because the relevant data still were secret. Some discussion followed of the stages in the process were the redactions were appropriate and when the information would become available to the public. He pointed out the addition, at Vidich’s suggestion, of two text boxes that discuss the impact on agriculture. Staff had added recommendation that the state asses solar potential on its own non-conservation properties. He also added a footnote that the provision to exempt facilities smaller than 65 MW from obtaining a certificate of environmental compatibility was added without a public hearing or expert testimony. Staff also added the chart that showed cumulative residential solar use.

Chair Merrow said that a number of state agencies had agreed to attend to discuss the issue and the report and its recommendations. She introduced Melanie Bachman, Acting Executive Director and Staff Attorney of the Connecticut Siting Council. Ms. Bachman thanked the Council for this invitation and for reaching out to the Siting Council in the summer, when the report was being researched. She recounted the history of the state’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy. She said that the strategy is based on cost effectiveness in power generation. The Siting Council uses the same approach in its determinations but also takes into account environmental issues.

She then explained the role of ISO New England and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority in managing the distribution of electricity throughout the six-state power grid. She said that solar power is at the nexus of power generation and public policy. Because it has an annual capacity factor of only 14.1% it poses a challenge to smooth integration to the grid. Hall asked how ISO New England can balance Connecticut’s policy of renewable portfolio standards and still choose only the cheapest sources; Bachman said that integration of renewables is a challenge for ISO.

Bachman explained some history behind the 2005 public act that allowed projects up to 65 MW to be approved by petition. Ms. Bachman said that in 2005 it was apparent that there would be a shortfall of electricity generation, and there was need for rapid approval of new sources. Wagener asked if solar was in the discussion when the 2005 bill was adopted; Ms. Bachman said all renewables were considered, as well as other types of sources. She noted that any person can request a hearing on a petition. She also described two examples of petitions that were denied or partially denied because of impacts to wetlands. She noted that most rare species inhabit wetlands, so those species are afforded some protections.

Ms. Bachman said the state is now working on the next version of its energy strategy with the goals of “cleaner, cheaper and more reliable” electricity. There was some discussion of agriculture’s economic importance and its legal status as a natural resource. Kolesinskas noted that the federal government has defined prime agricultural soils as a natural resource. Bachman asked how the Council defined agricultural land in its report since there are many possible definitions, such as soils or zoning or statutory definition. Hearn answered that the criterion was simply how the current or prior land use was described in the petitioner’s proposal. He said that only the acreage of the solar panel foot print was used, not the entire parcel on which it was placed. Ms. Bachman said defining this would be useful to the reader of the report. She said that input from the solar industry on the report should be solicited.

With regard to the recommendation that the 65 MW cap in the statute be changed, she said that various statutes are interrelated and that 65 MW threshold is used in other statutes. She cautioned about making recommendations for rigid statutory changes since the pace of technological changes in the field of renewables is so fast it could easily out pace legislative changes. She cautioned against singling out solar in the way wind was singled out; Connecticut has the most restrictive regulations, which took three years, on wind generation in the nation.

She said that the report did a good job of identifying the land-use issues associated with solar, but these considerations need to be balanced with the needs of ratepayers. She said that other agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Connecticut Green Bank need to be invited into the conversation. She answered Vidich’s question about placement on utility rights-of-way. Interstate electric and gas transmission is subject to regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that might not allow for solar fields. Also, the rights-of-way often are not owned by utilities but are easements that might have to be re-negotiated with the property owner. Further, the utility might want to reserve the space for the expansion of existing lines on the property. She did not rule out placement on other installations such as towers and poles.

Dunbar said that ISO is far more concerned with the major sources of electricity that can offer a dependable base load and supplemental sources and finally meet peak demand. Solar is too small to factor in much, except to the extent that it can flatten the overall demand.

Kolesinskas said the point is sustainability, not solar-generated electricity, and that locating on farms or forests, which produce ecosystem services, detracts from a sustainable economy, and therefore the price of electricity should not be the sole factor in selecting projects. Chair Merrow noted that in other states there have been moratoria proposed while these issues are sorted out. She thanked Ms. Bachman for her insights and suggestions.

The next guest Tracy Babbidge, Bureau Chief of Energy and Technology Policy at the Department of Energy and Environmental Policy (DEEP). She began by explaining that DEEP is pursuing clean energy sources because of statutory renewable portfolio standards that require 20 percent of the electric generation in the state be from renewable sources and that CO2 emissions are reduced by 80% from 2001 levels by 2050. She said this strategy will also meet air quality goals and diversify the energy mix. Connecticut is in non-attainment status for ozone pollution. She said DEEP is also sensitive to energy costs. She described the variety of strategies being used to meet the goal. She said that new strategies to address the optimal placement of solar fields must keep these broad goals in mind. She listed items under consideration, including more education and outreach to developers to encourage consideration of all siting options; tools to guide siting; working with UConn’s Center for Land Use Education and Research to create a GIS layer approach to siting; and others. She said there will be a meeting at DEEP on January 10, 2017 on siting of renewables. Speakers will present information on best practices. Representatives from the renewable energy community will be there as well as people from other states, agriculture, preservationists and Commissioner Klee of DEEP.

Dunbar observed that regardless of the clarity of tools for siting, commercial siting decisions are based on cost, and solar facilities will avoid low-cost agricultural lands only if there are cost reasons to do so. Ms. Babbidge said that before there is a determination that a resource, such as agriculture, is so important from a policy perspective that its development must be refused by government, there is a need to explore the question of whether developers can be encouraged to make other choices. Dunbar said he doubts that DEEP has the resources to launch such a comprehensive effort.

Hall asked about the process for changing the criteria in an RFP to slant development away from farmland, and whether there is an inherent conflict within DEEP to be promoting energy development rather than environmental concerns. Ms. Babbidge said that projects are proposed without DEEP involvement also and that DEEP’s involvement in the process can be helpful. Proper siting requires a skill set that in not yet available nationally.

Chair Merrow thanked Ms. Babbidge for taking the time to provide the Council with her perspective, and introduced the next speaker, Christopher Martin, Director of DEEP’s Forestry Division.

Mr. Martin thanked the Council for the invitation. He said it has been his experience that there have been benefits in having energy and environment in one agency. He said that DEEP has created plans such as the Forest Action Plan and the Wildlife Action Plan that established as priority goals the reduction of habitat fragmentation and loss. These goals can be in conflict with the trend to locate solar fields on forested lands.

Mr. Martin noted a significant difference in how the tristate siting process operated in the bid process for solar installations in contrast how other multi-state agreements operated with which he was familiar. He said other multi-state compacts require consensus among the states. The procurement process resulted in some states selecting projects in other states. He said that there might be a need for reexamination of the highly-successful PA-490 law and its interaction with solar development. He said it is reasonable to expect that there will be invasive plants and other negative consequences to the clearing of forests for solar facilities. He said he will be happy to contribute any expertise he can to efforts to improve solar siting.

There was some discussion of the potential rise in biomass energy and its potential benefits to forest management.

Vidich asked if the PA-490 has been successful in retaining forest land, and if the 10-year period of declining penalties was the proper period. Mr. Martin said that the 2007 recession did lead would-be developers to enroll vacant lands in PA-49, but it remains to be seen what will happen as the economy recovers. Chair Merrow thanked Mr. Martin for his information.

Commissioner of Agriculture Steven Reviczky spoke next and said that he and Commissioner Klee had many meetings to discuss the issue because the incentives to place solar projects on farmlands is one of the most serious threats to farming in Connecticut. He said that Commissioner Klee is committed to bringing together all the stakeholders to discuss what can be done to deal with this intersection of two important state policies – promoting agriculture and providing renewable energy. He has been concerned about this conflict for many years. The state has invested many millions of dollars in protection of its best farmland.

Vidich commented on the importance of local food production and asked what share of the food consumed in the state is locally produced; Mr. Reviczky answered that it is two percent and the state’s goal is five percent. He said that solar facilities could be encouraged where they have no negative impact on farming activities. He said that although many farm sites are zoned to allow for residential development, some of the sites that are being converted to solar facilities were proposed because they are close to transmission lines and they would not have been chosen for housing development for that reason; most likely, they would have remained in farming. Dunbar drew the comparison between farmlands and wetlands. Both are essential. The state acted to protect wetlands; protection of farm soils is appropriate too.

Wagener asked Mr. Reviczky to address the comments received by the Council that solar facilities are a benefit to financially marginal farms and that they could be considered to be a temporary use. Mr. Reviczky said he is skeptical that solar is a temporary use and thinks it unlikely they will return to farming in 30 years, when the panels are spent. He said the infrastructure for connection to the grid is already installed and is an incentive to continued use for energy production. He added that the installation of the panels, access ways and interconnections disturb the A and B soil horizons, making restoration an expensive proposition. Mr. Reviczky said though he is opposed to state incentives to convert farms to solar facilities, any individual landowner should always have a right to determine the future of his or her land and to negotiate with developers in the free market.

Chair Merrow asked what percentage of farmed land is rented from other land owners. Mr. Reviczky said the typical Connecticut dairy farm rents as much as it owns. He said a dairy operation needs about two to three acres per cow. Brooks asked if a solar facility could be placed on land that sold its development rights. Mr. Reviczky said his Department has approved facilities sized for the farm’s use where they do not diminish the productivity of the farm. As final notes, Commissioner Reviczky said that he understands that the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association has modified its policies on the energy siting questions, and that his attempts to submit testimony to the Siting Council on specific applications did not appear to be received with any enthusiasm or effect. Chair Merrow thanked Commissioner Reviczky for offering his expertise on the topic.

She asked the Council what changes to the report are warranted after today’s presentations. Brooks said that the factual data is sound but the report is light on recommendations. She said that additional recommendations might become apparent at the DEEP’s January 10 meeting, so perhaps the Council should take this up again at its January 25 meeting. Hall said the report has been in the works for a while and if it is to be useful when staff attends the January 10 meeting, it should be published. Brooks suggested editing the report to include the data that described the problem and omit the recommendations for now. Dunbar agreed with Brooks. Vidich agreed that the report needs to be available by January 10. Hall said that the attendees on January 10 would benefit from knowing the recommendations in the report, even if those recommendations are incomplete. Chair Merrow suggested a hybrid approach, where staff could rewrite sections to characterize the recommendations as somewhat general approaches to the problems identified. It was the consensus that the report should be redrafted as suggested by Chair Merrow and circulated to the members for quick editorial comments so that it might be posted on the website before January 10.

Other Projects – Wagener said he is not recommending comments on the natural gas electricity-generation facility proposed in Killingly. Staff reviewed the developer’s proposal and reviewed the record thus far. He said there are several intervenors in the Siting Council proceeding providing expert testimony.

He said the current issue of the Environmental Monitor includes an unusual posting this month: as the Department of Housing has proposed an agency-specific Environmental Classification Document for public comment. He is not recommending comment from the Council.

There being no further business, Dunbar made the motion to adjourn which was seconded by Charamut. Adjournment was at 12:12 PM.