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Let The Sun Shine: Solar Power Generation in East Lyme

Greenskies of Middletown is hoping to establish a solar power generation station in East Lyme that could provide electricity to 14 percent of local homes.

Let The Sun Shine: Solar Power Generation in East Lyme

East Lyme could be the new home of a power plant—but it's going to be one that uses the same energy that plants do. Greenskies Renewable Energy, a solar power company based in Middletown, is hoping to develop a solar power generation station in East Lyme in the Walnut Hill, Grassy Hill area in the north end of town. 

Last night, East Lyme Board of Selectmen heard a presentation about the project from Greenskies President Mike Silvestrini. Until now, the company, which was established in 2008, has mainly focused on providing solar power to commercial ventures, industries and big box stores such as Walmart and Target, using solar arrays on rooftops to provide power that is used by the business itself with the option to sell the excess power generated to utility companies. 

This project is a little different. Greenskies won a bid to provide solar power to Connecticut Light & Power. It's not the first time Greenskies has operated a solar power generation plant—the closest one it currently runs is in Springfield, Mass.—but it would be a first for East Lyme. 

The company is operating in partnership with a developer who has permits and plans to build a housing estate on the site. The original development called for 23 subdivisions. Now, about 25 acres of the parcel would go to Greenskies. The solar energy company hopes to set up an array of solar panels that will send energy directly to the power grid and provide electricity to about 14 percent of the homes in East Lyme. 

"We're seeing dramatic changes in our industry and the cost of solar energy go down," said Silvestrini. 

What a Solar Energy Plant Would Look Like

Compared to other types power plants, the time it takes to erect a solar field is minimal, perhaps four months at most, Silvestrini said. The only construction involves putting poles in the ground and rails to support two tiers of solar panels that measure three by four feet apiece. The panels are tilted at an angle facing south to capture as much sunlight as possible.

The panels would be about two feet off the ground and, with two tiers, would be between eight and 12 feet high when completed. The ground will need to be leveled to ensure proper placement of each panel and will be planted with a type of grass that doesn't grow very high to keep maintenance costs low, Silvestrini said.

The plant would include a small structure to be used for equipment storage that may double as an educational center to teach people about solar power. The site would also require a transformer to convert the solar energy into electricity that matches the electricity passing along the wires that make up the power grid.

The entire field would be enclosed by a wooden fence and would not be visible from the road, although it may be visible from the second floors of nearby homes, Silvestrini said. Unlike a wind farm, however, there is no noise involved in solar power generation.

The panels themselves are made of glass and silicon and are supported by aluminum poles, all of which are materials that would be recycled when the solar farm reached the end of its lifespan. But that could be decades from now, Silvestrini noted. Greenskies' contract with CL&P is for 20 years. The panels are guaranteed for 25 years but solar panels typically work for decades longer than that, he added. 

The entire project would be subject to approval from the Siting Council and by East Lyme's planning, zoning, wetlands, and building commissions. Getting the required permits will likely take some time but Silvestrini is optimistic that the plant could be online next year.

A Taxing Dilemma

From an environmental standpoint, the solar generation plant makes good sense but East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica said he's concerned about the loss of potential tax revenue. 

In many states, solar energy projects are tax exempt. That's not the case in Connecticut yet—although there are tax credits available to solar power companies—but it's a possibility in the future.

Regardless of how the state decides solar energy plants will be taxed, from the town's standpoint the project means the loss of potential property taxes. Had the landowner had gone through with his original plan to build homes on the entire site, the town would stand to gain $5,000 to $6,000 per home in property taxes.

Of course, as Silvestrini noted, those same homeowners would also require more in services, such as schools, roads, and garbage pickup, which won't be the case with the solar field, so it make work out even in the end. 

Formica is hoping that the state legislature might be able to come up with some form of payment in lieu of taxes, much as it does for nonprofit organizations such as universities or hospitals that take up valuable land in cities.

Either way, this project would be breaking new ground in East Lyme. 

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