Upstate NY towns push back against wind and solar projects
- Oct 17, 2022 4:16 pm GMT
The state deadline for creating an electric grid that relies on renewables for nearly three quarters of its energy was a decade away and large-scale wind and solar projects were having trouble getting approved. In 2020, just six renewable energy projects received permits from the state over the previous nine years and only one was under construction.
Developers were blaming state agencies responsible for protecting
State officials agreed.
"Article 10 struggled to keep pace with
In came the
Its most powerful tool gives ORES the ability to override local town zoning laws and ordinances considered "unreasonably burdensome" to the state's ability to achieve climate targets like zero carbon emissions by 2040. And it replaces Article 10's seven-member board for approving permits with Moaveni.
More than two years after the office came into existence, it's under attack by upstate towns from the
Tension over the new law is playing out in
Town officials say they feel abandoned by a state that has put its clean energy goals ahead of their concerns, bending to the wishes of renewables developers frustrated by years of delays and canceled projects, who successfully petitioned the state to ditch a time-consuming permitting process.
"I don't know anyone in this administration who is anti-solar,"
One town fights back
A bill pending in the state Legislature would eliminate the office. And a lawsuit filed by upstate towns and birding groups say the regulations that created the office were written by a consultant who works on securing permits for developers in
In February, ORES issued a draft opinion on the Horseshoe project, which overrode several of
On a late summer morning in western
It's days like these when the folks in
"That's why I'm glad I have central air,"
It's a tradeoff Corbin and others have come to accept in return for sweeping views of green pastures, nights so quiet sleep goes interrupted, and soil so prized homeowners earn extra income leasing land to farmers to grow corn, soybean and wheat.
It's a town with a history that dates to a time when Indian tribes fished and hunted along the
They've grown comfortable with 20th-century innovations like solar panels that capture the sun's rays and convert it to energy. A few years ago, town officials adopted an ordinance that allowed for 150 of
Sixty acres would be in
Residents say they didn't learn about the project until local farmers signed leases. But soon, a local residents' group – Residents United to Save our Hometown (
Farmers side with developers
A few acres of solar panels was one thing. A utility-scale installation on property zoned for residential was unsightly.
A 2020 Indigenous Peoples Day rally attracted some 100 protesters who walked along the river to a site near what was the ancient Indian village of Canawaugus. A traditional tobacco-burning ceremony was held to honor the dead.
"You're just driving a pylon into the ground and you don't know whether you damage the burial site at all," said
The Horseshoe plan met with little resistance in
Some farmers took the side of
"This is an unprecedented amount of investment that will allow our farmers and residents to sustainably diversify their profits,"
Stokoe appeared in a video for
Residents who considered themselves pro-renewable – their own homes outfitted with solar panels – were lining up against the project.
Among them was Corbin, a recently-retired high school biology teacher reared in
"I never thought about getting into politics," said Corbin, a Democrat. "But when I started reading that they were boring under the
'This land is sacred'
They hired a lawyer and an archaeologist to study the impact on the town's agricultural history.
"This land is sacred," Glocker, a
Corbin and Kusse wonder why the project wasn't moved to land nearby owned by the state.
"If you're going to pound steel beams into the ground to mount solar panels how would you know what you're pounding them in to," she said.
Corbin's late father, an archaeologist, once walked the land where the solar farm will be, charting the Native American history there. Its fields gave up arrowheads and other artifacts that confirm the Native American presence.
"I appreciate the land that's here and obviously I'm very in favor of renewable energy in the right place and in the right size," she said. "Horseshoe is truly an industrial power plant."
"We take the development of a project like this very seriously," Millar said. "It's about being in the community. We have a local office on the main street in
The Horseshoe site was chosen for its proximity to the grid and farmers willing to lease portions of their land.
"A lot of these landowners operate thousands and thousands of acres and so this was a way of diversifying some of their revenues," Millar said.
It's unclear how much farmers were offered for their land. But in a document filed by
It's developing several other large-scale projects in
State invests billions
In 2017, towns in the
The state stepped in when it discovered developers filing applications for projects without even getting landowner consent. A farmers' trade group warned members they could face financial penalties for turning agricultural land over for energy use.
Since then, momentum has picked up, forcing upstate towns to push back against developers eager for a share of the billions of dollars the state is investing in the renewable build-out.
The state already invested some
And the pressure is on to get these projects hooked into the grid.
The state will need 60 gigawatts of solar power from residential, commercial and utility-scale sources by 2050 if it's to achieve its climate goals, according to a state report issued last year. That's roughly 180 million solar panels, according to the
But currently there are just two small utility-scale solar farms with the ability to deliver energy to the grid at the –
Solar power from non-utility scale sources reached 4 gigawatts this year.
State officials says they're confident the state can meet its climate goals with projects coming online.
"The Hochul administration is committed to fighting climate change through clean energy deployment while maintaining robust community engagement with a thorough permitting and review process that mitigates impacts to
Over the past five years,
State officials say the projects will spur nearly
The recently-enacted Inflation Reduction Act could increase the amount of tax credits available for developers, nearly doubling government investment in wind and solar to
Upstate land relatively
cheap and abundant
The downstate region, which includes
At public hearings, residents question why the upstate region is being stuck with all the development.
Towns across the state are organizing grassroots opposition groups and hiring lawyers, challenging developers' attempts to clear acres of trees for fields of solar panels and install wind turbines, which they say will kill birds and disrupt their migration. Other projects, like a wind farm project in the towns of
The citizens' group, Clear Skies Above Barre, with 135 members, is opposing the planned Heritage Wind farm, a 185 megawatt installation with 33 wind turbines in Barre. Opponents say some of the turbines will be built next to wetlands where bald eagles have their nests and serves as a migratory pathway for birds.
For the past eight years, the towns of
And it's not just
Professor: Upstate 'one of
the worst places' for solar
Similar tensions are playing out across the country, with dozens of renewable energy projects delayed or canceled.
A June report by
Some question whether upstate is even a fit for solar-generated power.
Batteries to store solar energy when the sun isn't shining will be needed along with transmission upgrades to move all the renewable energy being planned for upstate down to the lower
His concerns were echoed by a report issued in September by the
The report warns that transmission is currently inadequate in the
ORES facing legal challenge
ORES decides whether developers of renewable projects of 25 megawatts or more are granted a permit.
It also creates a one-year deadline for a final decision, beginning after a completed project application is accepted. At the end of that year, if ORES has signed off, the project wins a permit.
Developers are required to meet with town officials and hold public hearings. Residents can raise their concerns in public comments after a draft permit is issued.
A draft permit issued by ORES in February overrode several municipal zoning laws.
Horseshoe argued that several of
The company said
Last year, attorneys
"The narrative that Article 10 was too slow is a canard," Abraham says. "If you're represented and you bring real issues, and you have experts, it takes years."
And, Abraham says, it's not local opposition that's stalling the approval. Typically, it's state agencies – like the departments of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Agriculture and Markets (DAM) that are pressing developers to adjust their plans.
Agriculture officials may have questions about the loss of prime farmland and trees while the DEC will gauge the impact on wetlands.
"You can't permit a large industrial project in 12 months, it's just not done," Abraham said. "And the effect is really to just give these guys a pass on much of the law."
The email was titled "It would be VERY bad for this meeting to be cancelled"
Lefton now oversees the
Russo's email suggested officials in the agriculture department believed wind and solar projects would lead to a permanent loss of agricultural land. But land leases typically expire after a set number of years.
"We wanted chamber there because we do not believe DAM gets it," Russo writes. "Everyone is for clean energy in theory, but nobody wants to cede any ground on their own program in service to the Governor's clean energy goals."
Russo declined to comment on the emails.
The documents obtained through the Freedom of Information request were filed with the state in the permit application process for a 100-megawatt wind farm in
Millar acknowledged that bottlenecks in the permitting process created a problem for developers.
"The creation of the 94-C regulations and the
Seggos says the DEC will continue balancing protection of natural resources with advancing the transition to clean energy, by taking a scientific approach to evaluating projects and ensuring compliance with state regulations.
Among the claims in the lawsuit challenging ORES is that the regulations were written by a
"It is no small wonder that Tetra Tech concluded, speaking for ORES, that not a single one of the regulations it drafted might have any significant adverse impact on the environment," Wisniewski writes in court papers filed in August.
A spokesperson for Tetra-Tech could not immediately be reached for comment.
The legal challenge was dismissed by a
The towns have appealed the ruling.
"The 94-c process was designed to eliminate meaningful opportunities for public and local government participation in the siting process," Wisniewski said.
ORES is currently reviewing eleven wind and solar projects and seven others have received permits. More than 70 are in the pipeline, including over two dozen that were transferred out of Article 10 and into ORES by developers.
Under Article 10, a seven-member siting board issued a final decision on a permit. Under 94-C, that decision rests largely with Moaveni.
'A show trial'
Frustration with the new law has cropped up at public hearings in recent months.
In late August, ORES held a hearing in the upstate town of
Some who spoke at the hearing questioned why trees would be cleared so the project could be developed. A fire chief wondered what would happen if there was a fire in the battery storage facility that would be built to house solar energy. What was it even made of? A representative from the
"We are asking the state to protect us," Engstrom said. "Indeed, it is their responsibility to do so...It appears to me to be a show trial. Because what happens? These hired people go home and the state does whatever it planned to do in the first place."
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