Building renewable energy in Connecticut is getting harder.
At a time when Connecticut’s laws call for greenhouse gas reductions and a Renewable Portfolio Standard that in nine years wants 20 percent of the state’s electricity to come from Class I renewables such as wind and solar, legislators and residents are fighting tooth and nail against Connecticut’s first proposed commercial wind project.
West Hartford wind developer BNE Energy, Inc. wants to put two 1.6-megawatt turbines in Prospect and six 1.6-megawatt turbines in Colebrook, as part of its plan to install 100 megawatts of wind in New England by 2012. These eight turbines would be the first in Connecticut to feed the electrical grid.
“Connecticut has been a leader in promoting renewable energy, creating Renewable Portfolio Standards; and these are the first commercial wind projects in the state,” BNE Chairman Paul Corey said. “If the legislature were to pass a law creating a moratorium, that would send a very negative message.”
Hundreds of people attended a hearing on the proposed Prospect project on Feb. 23 and 24. Residents around the proposed sites in Colebrook and Prospect raised such a ruckus that their legislators – one of whom co-chairs the General Assembly’s Energy & Technology Committee – have proposed a bill putting a moratorium on wind development until specific regulations are adopted, undoing laws designed to make commercial renewable energy development easier.
“We all thought about wind in Connecticut, and we all thought wind would be sited on ridgelines and offshore,” said State Rep Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chair of Energy & Technology. “The problem is these large wind projects. That puts a different perspective on it.”
Building generation plants in Connecticut isn’t easy to begin with, even when the proposal doesn’t call for 492-foot high turbines. With more than 3.5 million people living in the fourth smallest geographic state in the nation, any proposed project is bound to be near someone’s backyard.
The state gives near universal power to the Connecticut Siting Council to approve power plant projects, weighing the need for electricity with environmental and safety standards. State law doesn’t set any regulatory requirements regarding individual sources of generation – wind, natural gas, solar, coal, etc. are legally the same – freeing up the Siting Council to evaluate projects on an individual basis.
“That gives the council the latitude to be more strict than if there were specific regulations,” said Linda Roberts, executive director for the Connecticut Siting Council.
A nuclear plant might make sense off Long Island Sound in Waterford, but it might not make sense in downtown Hartford. If the state had specific regulations in place, and the proposed developer met all those regulations for a downtown Hartford nuclear plant; it would be harder to argue against the project. Because the Siting Council operates free of regulations, the council is better equipment to judge appropriateness, Roberts said.
For renewable energy projects between one and 25 megawatts, the Siting Council can bypass its lengthy docket process and approve them on petition, provided state environmental standards are met.
“The General Assembly put this process in place because they want to promote green energy,” Roberts said.
But the legislative opposition to the Colebrook and Prospect projects – the first wind projects seeking approval under the petition process – would undo these green efforts. House Bill 5210 authored by Nardello and sponsored by Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Prospect, puts a six- to 12-month moratorium on all commercial wind projects in Connecticut until the Siting Council develops regulations specific to wind for issues such as setbacks and noise levels.
Wind would be the only source of power regulated by the state.
“The mechanism is already in place to review projects,” said Dave Cohen, regional director of Wilton-based Alteris Renewables Wind Business, the largest installer of renewable energy in the Northeast. “Just shutting the door on the wind industry isn’t the answer.”
The opposition to the Prospect and Colebrook turbines and the way the Siting Council approves projects sprang out of the speed in which the turbines were proposed.
Stella Somers, innkeepers of Rock Hall Luxe Lodging in Colebrook, said she was blindsided by the proposal to put three of the turbines within a half mile of her property. She said she didn’t receive any notification that BNE was exploring the site.
Because this is the Siting Council’s first commercial wind project, Somers said regulations are needed to guide toward wind development with no negative impacts.
“The Siting Council has no experience with wind turbines,” Somers said. “This whole process is outrageous.”
Joyce Hemingson – president of FairWindCT, which opposes the Colebrook turbines – said when the state decided to fast-track renewables, it didn’t consider the impacts of wind turbines, which are taller and more visible than power plants.
“I don’t think the legislature ever envisioned that these would be put in neighborhoods,” Hemingson said. “We are not the Midwest where you have vast agricultural lands.”
Putting in wind turbines isn’t the most environmentally friendly process either, Hemingson said. Acres of land and forests must be cleared to make room for the turbines, gravel roads must be installed through wetlands, and the turbines must be linked to the power grid’s transmission system.
“The concerns they are raising are overstated,” BNE’s Corey said. “People support wind and renewable energy in this state.”
Alteris, which hasn’t proposed a commercial-scale wind project in Connecticut, sees negative reaction coming from specific projects. Cohen said turbines need to be properly sited, and there are inappropriate proposals.
State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford – Energy & Technology co-chair along with Nardello – said the authority for siting projects needs to remain with the Siting Council.
Wind has potential in Connecticut, Fonfara said. Technology can make a difference in both how the state harnesses wind power and how Connecticut grows its renewable development industry. Having wind projects leads to further in-state research and development, which grows jobs, companies and industry, he said.
Since Nardello introduced H.B. 5210 on Jan. 13, the legislation has sat in the Energy & Technology Committee, as the members and the co-chairs hear public debate on the bill. Meanwhile the Siting Council moves forward with BNE’s petition; its hearing on the Colebrook project is scheduled for March 22 and 23.
Fonfara said he is a strong proponent of the Siting Council and its independence from legislative meddling. Once the General Assembly starts requiring specific regulations, the council becomes compromised.
“Once you start down that road, where do you stop?” Fonfara asked.
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