Candlewood solar project worries pilots at nearby airport
Updated 2:11 pm, Sunday, January 8, 2017
Below the plane, the ground resembled a patchwork quilt with boxes of open fields and bare trees.
On an 80-acre section of that landscape, there are plans to clear-cut trees on a Candlewood Mountain ridge and install 20 megawatts of solar panels.
Emerging as vocal critics of the project are the pilots who use the small, grass-runway airport, and are worried the panels will reflect the sun into their eyes as they take off and land.
As Szigeti circled the airport Wednesday, he pointed out the proposed spot for the panels, which he said would be visible from the ground, as well as the sky.
“Once again, there they are in our face with the sun reflecting off them,” Szigeti said as he took the plane around to simulate a normal take-off traffic pattern on the open-field runway. “It’s going to be a hazard to our vision.”
Representatives from Ameresco, the company that would lease the land for 20 years to start and operate the solar panels, addressed concerns about glare last month during an informational meeting on the project. They cited other projects the company has done that alleviated concerns about glare.
Among the projects was the installation of 8,700 solar panels on the roofs of two parking structures at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“To pilots in approaching aircraft, MSP’s solar array appears as two solid mirrors. Per FAA regulations, the panels were placed at an angle to prevent glare that could hamper landing aircraft. Although the angle prevents the panels from producing the maximum amount of power, it adds a vital measure of airfield safety,” according to Ameresco’s website.
Representatives for the company could not be reached for comment about the New Milford project.
But a study published by the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2015 determined solar panels can produce a glare and interfere with pilots’ ability to see their controls and fly a plane, especially when the panels were head-on.
“We, therefore, recommend that the design of any solar installation at an airport consider the approach of pilots,” the report concluded.
Szigeti expects the glare would be worst during the late afternoon and evening hours as the sun set in the west, which are also prime flying times because people are off work and the weather conditions are better.
“A lot of folks when they get off work, come up and fly,” Szigeti said.
Szigeti, who has been flying out of Candlelight Farms Airport for 40 years, said there are about 20 pilots, many with small planes, who regularly fly at the airport during the summer, but it attracts more when the weather is nice because of the picturesque setting.
The airport was built about 60 years ago and is one of a few left of its kind with the grass runway, he said.
He said the airport is privately owned, but the public walks the site at the encouragement of the owner, so it is more like a park.
“It’s a nice rural setting, and it’s kind of mucking it up,” Szigeti said of the proposal.
Like others who have concerns with the proposed site, he suggested the panels go in a more industrial part of town.
D’Addeo said they have not studied if the panels would be visible from the runway, but said they would not be seen from any of the residences, so they should not have any effect on property values or people’s ability to enjoy the rural aspects of the site. He said the main activity would be during the six-month installation, which would be less disturbance than if three or four houses were built there during that time.
“You couldn’t pick a site that could be less visible to neighbors,” he said. “The rural nature of the mountain will be the same as it was, but there will be more meadow and less trees.
About 30 acres of the 80-acre site is meadow. D’Addeo said they are looking at removing trees on the additional 50 acres or so.
Some of the residents’ and pilots’ other concerns were outlined in a letter to the editor last week from the airport’s principal, Terrence J. McClinch.
“The proposed project is contrary to the existing zoning, town master plan spirit of why we all live in the vicinity,” he wrote.
Among the concerns listed were potential erosion because it is on a hill, removing the mature trees, glare ruining mountainside views, hurting property values and affecting residents’ ability to enjoy the rural countryside.
D’Addeo said erosion will not be an issue because the area will be grassy. This means there will not be more stormwater runoff moving quickly on the hill, which tends to cause erosion. He added engineers are looking at the site and will recommend additional stormwater treatment measures if needed.
He said the project has environmental benefits as well, because it is a cleaner energy source than burning fossil fuels and helps get Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island closer to a goal of having 20 percent of energy come from renewable sources by 2020. The project was one of several selected in October in response to the requests for proposals from the three states to meet the energy goal.
Under the proposal, the power generated would be added to the electric grid through the nearby Rocky River Power Station.
The next step is for the proposal to go before the Town Council on Jan. 9, where a contract rate will be set between the town and company, D’Addeo said.
He said he expects to pay the town an average of at least $100,000 each year through the contract, which is about the same amount the town would receive with a normal tax assessment of the property.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to get the support from the municipality and those around us,” D’Addeo said.