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How Connecticut’s cautious first step on shared solar turned into a false start

solar panels

A solar rooftop installation in Broward County, Florida. Photo Credit: Paul Krashefski / U.S. Department of Energy

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The state is moving forward with a full-fledged shared solar program even as a pilot program continues to limp along.

More than three years after the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) selected three shared solar projects for a small pilot program, only one of those projects is operational.

The other two haven’t even started construction. 

The pilot program, as established by the state General Assembly in 2015, was very limited — just 6 megawatts in total — and was intended to ease the state into the concept. Many clean energy advocates objected to lawmakers’ toe-in-the-water approach, however, and argued that it was a waste of time, as states with existing robust shared solar programs offered successful templates to work from.  

The pilot has been slow to yield any benefits. And in the meantime, lawmakers passed legislation authorizing a full-blown Shared Clean Energy Facilities Program. The first round of bids in that program was due last month, even as the pilot projects continued limping along. 

“It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to go through all these stumbles to get to where we are now,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of Solar Connecticut, an industry group. “I’m glad that cooler heads prevailed and lawmakers decided not to wait for the outcome of the pilot to set up the full program. To think that we had to start with a pilot was nonsense.” 

The new program, which allows for development of up to 25 megawatts annually, is better designed than the pilot, said Charles Rothenberger, an attorney with Save the Sound. 

“I wouldn’t necessarily anticipate whatever issues are impacting the pilot program to impact the new program moving forward,” he said.

Shared solar is a way of expanding solar access to people who can’t otherwise install their own systems, such as those who live in rental units or homes without sufficient sun exposure. 

Residents and businesses subscribe to a shared solar installation in their area. The energy generated is fed into the electric grid, and subscribers receive a credit for their share.

Connecticut’s new program is largely limited to low- and moderate-income households, small businesses, state and municipal entities and commercial customers. Once the projects are operational, utilities will be required to automatically enroll lower-income customers and credit them on their monthly bills.

The pilot program was also intended to increase clean energy access for low- to moderate-income customers. Under its rules, developers, not utilities, are responsible for recruiting and managing subscribers.

What went wrong

The pilot got off to a rocky start in 2016, after DEEP accepted 19 project proposals from eight developers. The agency then decided not to accept any of the proposals, and instead revised the program’s criteria. The second request for proposals resulted in just nine bids from four developers. 

In June 2017, the agency selected three proposals for projects in Bloomfield, Thompson and Shelton. 

The 1.62 MW project in Bloomfield is the only one that has come to fruition. Developed by Clean Energy Collective, based in Colorado, in partnership with locally based C-TEC Solar, the project is located on land leased from the Bloomfield Board of Education, which is also the primary subscriber. 

Residents of a low-income housing development account for about 20% of capacity, according to a 2019 status report filed by the developer, as required by state statute. 

The proposal for Thompson, from CHIP Fund 5, LLC, calls for a 2 MW array on 49 acres of unused industrial land that was once part of a mill complex. DEEP ranked the proposal first overall, based in part on its anticipated operation date of June 2018 (the earliest among all submissions) and its commitment to sign up 80% low-to-moderate-income subscribers. 

That project has made the least progress. And the project’s backer, MSL Group, in Milford, did not file any of the required status reports, according to DEEP. 

The primary holdup appears to be a title dispute on the proposed construction site, a complication that existed at the time of the bid’s submission. 

Michael Licamele, owner of MSL Group, had a sales agreement to buy the land from the owner, a subsidiary of Putnam Bank, if his bid was accepted. The purchase price is $150,000. But that sale was subject to settlement of the title dispute, which still hadn’t been resolved when Licamele was reached by phone in May.  

“There’s a lien that the town has on the property that has to do with the previous owner,” he said. “It’s an argument over something that happened years ago. We’re waiting for them to get resolution.”

CHIP Fund’s bid proposal did not explicitly point out the title dispute, but a copy of the sales agreement included with the proposal noted that the property was subject to a mortgage held by the town in the original amount of $384,000. The bank was unaware of the mortgage when it acquired the property, the agreement said, but had filed a claim with its title insurance company to try and resolve the matter.

Calls and emails to several town officials were not returned.

Asked whether DEEP overlooked the title issue when it reviewed CHIP Fund’s bid, spokesman Will Healey said only that the agency “reviewed the bids based on the information provided and determined the selected bids met the minimum criteria.” 

On April 30, CHIP Fund filed a motion with the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to extend its required in-service date to June 30, 2021, citing the pandemic, which it said had “caused delays in the project’s funding closing, as well as its construction timeline due to supply chain problems…” 

Regulators granted the extension on July 16, saying it would be the last. A previous extension had been granted to December 31, 2020.

Contacted again last week, Licamele declined to comment further on the status of the project, but said he was “confident that we will be able to meet the revised deadline.”

The third project, in Shelton, was to be a 1.6 MW installation on 7.5 acres of a capped landfill owned by the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, a quasi-public agency. The project’s developer is USS Shelton Solar, a subsidiary of Minnesota-based US Solar. 

The bid proposal called for an operational date of September 30, 2019.

In a status report filed in June 2019, the developer said it was already behind schedule because DEEP had been “slow to respond” to their requests for the necessary approvals to access the site and perform geotechnical investigation. The delay had prevented them from finalizing project design, and moving ahead on permitting and an interconnection agreement, the report said. 

Last month, the developer received unanimous approval from the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission for what will now be a considerably smaller project: 975 kilowatts on 5.9 acres. 

Martin Mobley, chief executive officer of US Solar, said the project was downsized because “following extensive due diligence, we determined that certain portions of the site are not well suited for our solar project.”

Asked about the delay, Mobley said only that there were “greater site-related challenges than we had initially anticipated.” 

The project still needs a couple more approvals. Mobley declined to say when it would be operational. The developer also recently won approval to lease a former municipal landfill site in Torrington for a proposed 3MW shared solar facility.

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