Berne board divided on solar moratorium

BERNE — The Berne Town Board is divided again, this time over solar energy.

At Berne’s Feb. 13 town board meeting, a vote to renew a moratorium on industrial solar arrays was divided along party lines, with the board’s three Democrats voting in favor of the moratorium and the two Republicans voting against it.

The Berne supervisor said his vote against the moratorium was symbolic to say that the town needs to move forward on enacting a law to allow for industrial solar arrays, while a councilwoman writing such a law said it needs time and consideration.

The nearby Hilltowns of Knox and Westerlo already have laws in place that allow for industrial arrays and each town has such arrays in place.

Berne resident Gordon Pollard said that he had addressed the board members at the meeting to ask why they were against industrial-scale solar.

“They drew a blank,” he said, of the town board, until Councilwoman Dawn Jordan spoke up and said she was looking into the legislation.

Pollard, a union electrician for almost 30 years, told The Enterprise that he supervised the construction of two different large-scale solar arrays for an electric company in Massachusetts in 2017. He later moved to the Hilltowns to do work for General Electric, he said.

“Massachusetts is way ahead on green energy than New York,” he said.

He can’t think of any drawbacks solar energy, which he said would bring tax revenue to the town, is not noisy or disruptive, and give farmers an alternative way to use their farmland. (See related letter to the editor.)

“It’s better than burning fossil fuel,” he said.

Supervisor’s view

Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise that he voted against extending the moratorium for symbolic reasons, to show that the town needs to enact a law to allow for large-scale industrial solar arrays or fall behind the times.

“We had no worries about it not passing,” said Lyons, of the moratorium.

He believes allowing industrial solar arrays in Berne would benefit farmers who are no longer using their land, and let residents use a greener form of energy. Lyons said he understands the town needs to be responsible, but said that it doesn’t mean legislation should be stopped. He added that he would be excited to hear from more people on the matter.

Jordan’s concerns

Jordan, a Democrat who voted in favor of the moratorium and is currently working on legislation for industrial solar arrays, said that the two Republicans’ votes make her believe that they don’t understand the fundamentals of good zoning.

Voting down the moratorium, which could not be put in place again after it runs out, would have allowed industrial arrays to be put in place without needed regulation, including a decision on whether builders should have to pay property taxes or agree to a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT.

She also said that there are no rules in place to set up an escrow account or insurance to cover the cost of decommissioning the arrays at the end of their lifespan or if a project is abandoned.

“They could just leave it there,” she said of abandoned solar panels.

Jordan is not against having industrial solar farms built in Berne, but said the risks have to weighed first.

“I do understand the attraction of this for landowners,” she said, before adding that proper zoning has to be in place.

A similar moratorium against hydrofracking, which is not allowed in New York State, passed unanimously at the Feb. 13 meeting.

According to a list of legislation, compiled by under the platform “eCode360,” a platform from the company General Code, LLC, that amalgamates municipal documents, the Berne Town Board first passed a solar-energy moratorium in August 2016, two months after a Knox resident and member of the Berne Historical Society went to the town board with concerns that a solar panel in Berne’s historic district would affect the appearance of the district.

The moratorium was renewed every three months until last February, when a small-scale solar energy law was passed and the moratorium was changed to apply only to industrial-scale solar not residential solar.

“We just kind of peeled that section out,” said Jordan.

Jordan said that the Berne Planning Board has submitted a draft of an industrial solar law that she has been reviewing. She said that she was delayed in her review by changes in the town administration last year after the supervisor and two new council members were elected in 2017.

Jordan, who serves as the liaison for the planning and zoning board, said that she is also having Councilwoman Karen Schimmer help review and do research. Lyons, when asked about the legislation, deferred to Jordan, who said she was spearheading efforts to write the legislation.

Following her review and any changes, the law will go back to the planning board, which will have 45 days to review it and could ask to make changes itself before the law can be voted on by the town board. Jordan hopes to see a law passed in six or seven months.

Jordan said that she will be looking to the town’s comprehensive plan and its section on solar energy for guidance while working on the legislation. The comprehensive plan was passed in 2017 and Jordan said that people who came to speak at hearings on the plan expressed concern over things like industrial development and tarnishing their views.

She also said that she has been reviewing New Scotland’s solar law, which was passed in 2017 with a primary goal of preserving farmland and open space.

A number of things need to be looked into and considered before passing an industrial solar law, Jordan said. This includes the state’s Public Service Law that allows New York to review a facility of 25 megawatts or more rather than the local government. Jordan is also aware farmland could be taken out of commission for the lifespan of the arrays, which she said is at least 20 years.

Jordan listed a number of potential environmental impacts, such as soil erosion and losing carbon sequestration if forests are cleared for arrays, and interrupting wildlife corridors.

Jordan also noted concerns about the production and disposal of arrays, which are often made with toxic materials like cadmium and lead, according to The International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization to promote adoption and sustainable use of green energy. Jordan wonders if the toxins could be released into the groundwater if the arrays were damaged in a storm.

“It’s not the clean, green fantasy that people want to think it is,” she said.

A guidance document from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control classifies discarded or abandoned solar panels as hazardous waste since they often containing heavy metals such as silver, copper, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and selenium.

“In general, data shows that older silicon panels may be hazardous due to lead solder. Some older silicon panels are hazardous for hexavalent chromium coatings. Cadmium tellurium (CdTe) panels are typically hazardous due to the cadmium. Gallium arsenide (GaAs) panels may be hazardous due to the arsenic. Thin film panels, such as copper indium gallium selenide (CIS/CIGS) panels, may be hazardous due to the copper and/or selenium,” the guide says.

However, other energy-producers also create hazardous materials; coal plants, which use a nonrenewable energy source, can release mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide, in addition to releasing heat-trapping gases like carbon-dioxide and methane gases that contribute to climate change, for example.

Also it’s unlikely solar panels would be either manufactured or disposed of in Berne.

Asked whether the town should establish a PILOT system to encourage industrial arrays, Jordan was unsure. New York State law exempts solar panels from being included in the calculation of property tax, unless a local government opts out, allowing it to collect property taxes with the solar panels included. If an array’s property owner was to pay taxes, property values would go up in town, she said. But she was concerned that the town would ultimately lose money in the long run after a PILOT agreement ends.

Presentation postponed

Lyons said the town had been speaking with the engineering company TRC Solutions about presenting information on solar energy at the meeting, but said that it was decided to postpone the presentation given that the public hearing on the moratorium was being held that night. He said that the presentation would be held at next month’s town board meeting.

Jordan said that board members had received an email from Lyons about the engineers coming to the meeting, and that she had emailed back that it wasn’t appropriate due to the moratorium vote. She said that she also objected because any possible solar projects would also not be in the town board’s purview, but the planning board’s.

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