California company plans solar farms in Helderbergs

— Photo from Cypress Creek Renewables

This solar farm of 6.7 megawatts was built by Cypress Creek Renewables. The largest size allowed in New York State is 2 megawatts.

HILLTOWNS — A California company has mailed large landowners in the rural Helderbergs, asking to lease their land for solar arrays.

“We are a solar farm developer trying to develop rapidly in New York,” said Jeff McKay, a spokesman for Cypress Creek Renewables. The company, founded in 2014, is based in Santa Monica, California with other offices in Arizona, Missouri, New York, and North Carolina.

McKay described his company’s model this way: “We go in and acquire or lease land. We put in solar panels on the property and sell the power to companies or individuals.”

The New York Public Service Commission’s new Community Distributed Generation Program is seeking distributed solar generation resources up to two megawatts to sell power directly to member electric utility customers, McKay wrote, answering Enterprise questions by email.

The mailings to Hilltown landowners named prices of $1,500 per acre per year for 20 acres. “We try to target available properties of at least 18 acres in size,” said McKay. “We have reached out to a number of landowners in the area who we believe can benefit from our local solar initiative. We typically work with landowners who have 20 continuous acres of relatively flat land, which is in reasonable proximity to power lines/utility substations and free of wetlands or endangered species.”

Asked if the $1,500-per-acre annual leasing prices were negotiable, McKay said, “The price-per-acre we can pay varies a bit based on location and our ability to develop the land. Due to the volume of leases we have, we use consistent lease agreements whenever possible.”

He also said, “We believe solar farms are consistent with local land-use plans and historical uses, including agriculture. Over the long term, solar farms can help maintain agriculturally productive land by providing income stability for farmers. While we can tell you what we are offering, we cannot comment on market dynamics or competitive aspects of solar development. We do believe we are making very competitive offers, and we operate on a first-come, first serve basis.”

Robert Price, chairman of the Knox Planning Board, said that the town’s current zoning ordinance would allow a large solar array only in the town’s business district, which is in the hamlet of Knox. “There is only one parcel of land in Business District 1,” Price said, that would work for a solar farm.

“The planning board is working on trying to change that,” he said.

Currently, though, if Cypress Creek were to want to build solar farms in Knox, the company would need to apply for a variance, which Price described as “a long drawn-out affair.”

Price also noted that the Public Service Commission has said solar arrays cannot be larger than two megawatts, which he said would cover eight acres of land. Unlike wind turbines, Price said, “Solar arrays totally occupy the land.” For example, he said, cows could graze on land with wind turbines, but not with solar panels.

“They are visually significant,” Price said of the large arrays. He said, too, there might be problems putting steel poles into the ground since Helderberg land often has rock close to the surface.

“On the good side,” he said, “there’s no noise and they don’t kill bats and birds.”

Three-phase power lines run along routes 146 and 156 in the Helderbergs, but some of the property owners who received mailers from Cypress Creek Renewables do not have land near these power lines. Asked about this, McKay said, “The proximity to a power-line is a big plus, but it does not need to be in close proximity to a power line.”

Price, who has volunteered his services as project engineer for Helderberg Community Energy, a grassroots group that plans to build a cooperative solar array in Knox, said that an application fee to National Grid “just to get in the cue” costs $7,400 and could take three to seven months. The cost to hook the solar array to a power line could cost from $1,500 to $700,000, he said, depending on the distance from the three-phase line.

Price said that interest in solar power in New York exploded after the PSC in July 2015 created the Community Distributed Generation Program, which reduced the risks of the former system of power-purchase agreements. This was coupled with the federal government extending tax credits for solar energy until 2020.

“It made everybody go berserk,” said Price. He gave the example of a single two-megawatt power array, which costs $5 million, with the tax credit of 30 percent, now costing $3.5 million. “It’s eminently marketable,” he said.

Asked if Cypress Creek would sell its leases to other companies or would develop the properties solely itself, McKay said, “We have no plans of selling the leases.  Our goal is to develop and also be the operator of each of these projects. I’m not aware of any other companies trying to buy leases in this area.”

Cypress Creek’s website says the company, founded less than two years ago, has raised well over $1 billion and its local solar farms produce energy at or below market costs. Asked about this, McKay responded, “Cypress Creek Renewables has a company mission to develop, finance, and operate an extensive portfolio of solar power assets based in the United States. Cypress manages an operating portfolio of more than 330 MW [megawatts] and has a pipeline in excess of 2 GW [gigawatt, equal to 1 billion watts or 1,000 megawatts] in over 9 states.

“Cypress Creek is moving rapidly to commission operational ground-mount projects from 2-20 MW in capacity. Cypress has leveraged management experience with over 100 operational projects to create a standardized approach, allowing us to develop at scale with speed and efficiency.”

Helderberg Community Energy

Russell Pokorny is cautioning Hilltown residents to be wary of overtures from Cypress Creek Renewables seeking to lease their undeveloped land. (See his letter to the editor on the opinion pages.)

Pokorny is president of Helderberg Community Energy and is also the Knox assessor. He has recently heard from half a dozen residents who have received notices from Cypress Creek Renewables.

Price added his own words of caution. “Anybody who gets that package needs to read it extremely carefully. If you read the fine print, the $1,500 is tempered — they need to evaluate your property.”

Helderberg Community Energy has investigated several pieces of land for its cooperative solar array with one landowner “ready to sign up,” said Pokorny.  “We need to get a financer, developer and have co-op members ready,” he said.

The land is across from the Albany County Highway Department building on Route 146 in Knox, said Pokorny.

He has not heard that Cypress Creek has an interest in that property, he said, so Helderberg Community Energy is not in competition with the California company.

“I’m for anybody who can put these up and produce green energy,” said Pokorny. “I don’t want to put up a roadblock.”

Helderberg Community Energy formed a decade ago and was first centered on wind energy. A tower was erected to measure wind on property owned by Russell and Amy Pokorny, Knox’s deputy supervisor. The couple use renewable energy to power their own home.

“Wind didn’t turn out to be economically feasible. We were competing with wholesale prices and had loud opposition,” said Russell Pokorny. “With solar, we’re competing on a retail level so it’s feasible.”

In 2014, the group started lobbying state legislators and went to the Public Service Commission, too, in hopes the state would allow cooperative solar projects, which it has.

The group’s goal is to sign up individuals and businesses in Albany County to use solar energy from a shared solar farm to power their homes and offices. He and his wife make presentations on the project. On Wednesday, they talked to the Voorheesville village board of trustees.

“We’ve joined forces with Solarize Albany,” said Pokorny. “Solarize Albany looks for people to put solar panels on homes. When they find people without [appropriate] roofs or yards, they could join our community array.”

Solarize Albany and Helderberg Community Energy worked together to write two requests for proposals for a solar developer that have been given to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The state requires that a certain number of people with low or moderate incomes be included, who, Pokorny said, could be served with the community solar array; renters as well as homeowners can be part of the cooperative.

The group has been awarded a $5,000 grant from NYSERDA to publicize the program, said Pokorny.

He went over the timeline that Helderberg Community Energy hopes will allow it to have a solar array installed by the end of 2016. On Feb. 15, RFPs were to be released. Questions are to be submitted by Feb. 29 and answers given a week later.

“Complete RFPs are to be in our hands by March 14 and we do interviews the week of March 27, and select by April 11,” said Pokorny.

“I just checked my email,” Pokorny said on Tuesday; he found no RFPs.

He went on, “We were hoping to build something to get people onto it by the end of the year.” Pokorny outlined several obstacles that stand in the way.

For one, National Grid has to certify the line to attach it to. Three-phase power lines, required to transmit the solar power, already run along Route 146, said Pokorny.

Another obstacle, said Pokorny is “part of our RFP is to explain how to manage accounting and billing co-op members rather than National Grid; a computer system has to be developed.”

Pokorny went on, “As a society, we use a lot of electricity. The easiest way to conserve fossil fuels is as a big company.” He gave the example of Positive Energy building a big array “for just one customer” — Stewart’s.

“Big developers put resources into big arrays for big companies, rather than a community array,” Pokorny said.

He explained the dilemma, “Let’s say we have 200 people” in the co-op. “You have to get 200 people to pay their bills.”

The Enterprise asked McKay if his company’s operation in the Hilltowns would infringe on the endeavors of Helderberg Community Energy. He responded, “We are engaged local stakeholders, who work with municipalities and civic organizations across dozens of counties and are excited about the opportunity to work with organizations like them across the state.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Knox Planning Board Member Debra Nelson suddenly left a March meeting that she was attending remotely before she could cast her vote on whether to override the county planning board’s recommendation against a proposed solar facility.

  • A county-level lawsuit alleging that the Working Families Party didn’t submit original documents when authorizing their candidates for local office names candidates from Berne, Bethlehem, Guilderland, Coeymans, Colonie, and the city of Albany.

  • Former Berne Deputy Town Clerk Jean Guarino says her boss, Town Clerk Anita Clayton, suspected her of leaking information about thePublic Employee Safety and Health Bureau report regarding the death of highway worker Peter Becker. The PESH report is a public document.

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