New state solar regs aim to speed up approval process; local municipalities solar laws on the ball — for the most part

— Map created by Marcello Iaia

The circles are located at electrical substations into which solar arrays can feed the energy they produce. The larger the circle, the more arrays that feed into the substation. The white circles indicate proposed solar projects. The gray circles indicate completed solar projects. The map is based on information from National Grid, collected by New York State.

ALBANY COUNTY — With the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in July 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the most ambitious climate plan in the country, requiring that, by 2030, seventy percent of New York’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources, and, by 2040, the state’s electricity sector is to be “100-percent carbon-free.” 

To get to that goal, in February, the governor proposed a backdoor state-run solution that would streamline the environmental review and permitting of renewable-energy projects of 25 megawatts and greater — in part, by excluding local municipalities from much of the decision-making process — while also allowing medium-sized projects, between 10 and 25 megawatts, to opt into the process. 

Current state permitting applies only to renewable-energy projects of 25 megawatts and greater.

There are currently about 15 local renewable-energy projects in the National Grid interconnection queue (projects looking to tie into the utility’s electricity grid) that are in various stages of proposal — some have already been approved by local planning boards while others have yet to be presented to the municipality in which they are proposed to be built. 

None of the proposed projects in the National Grid interconnection queue are larger than five megawatts. 

Locally, the largest approved solar project is actually two projects: at Shepard Farm in Westerlo, the solar farm is made up of two 45-acre plots that had once been part of the same 190-acre property — one with a 6.9-megawatt array and the other with a 2.9-megawatt array.

Cuomo presented the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act in February as a 30-day budget amendment, after legislators had finished their normal review of the governor’s proposed budget.

Cuomo’s bill is now rolled into the proposed state budget, which he will be negotiating with the legislature in the coming weeks. 

One of the governor’s arguments for passing the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act is that the state’s current siting process for energy-producing projects was designed for dirty fossil-fuel-burning power plants — a process that could take as long as five to 10 years. 

The state’s current siting process, according to the governor, was “created prior to the current nation-leading clean energy and environmental goals under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.”

The proposal would allow municipalities the opportunity to advise on compliance with local laws, which would be considered and might be applied.

The proposal would also establish the Office of Renewable Energy Permitting to centralize renewable-energy siting and permitting. The new office would fall under the aegis of the Department of Economic Development. Currently, these functions are the purview of the Department of Public Service.

Zackary Knaub, in a National Law Review analysis of the proposed legislation, writes that “the bill signals a shift in thinking about renewable energy siting, from a bureaucratic energy regulatory issue sometimes hindered by fierce local opposition, to an economic development process focused on steering the train of jobs and economic benefits anticipated from renewables over the next decade as a result of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, while continuing to ensure all environmental requirements are met.”

Additionally, the bill would allow the state to supercede local zoning requirements while also potentially taking away a municipality’s ability to negotiate a better revenue deal for itself. 

 

Local control

Between 2012 and 2019, there have been 175 non-residential and 2,324 residential solar installations in Albany County, according to the New York Solar Map, a website maintained by the City University of New York. 

In that time, local towns and villages have gone through the process of adopting their own solar regulations — some have done so thoughtfully in advance of proposed projects, while others have had to adjust and legislate on-the-fly.

 

Guilderland

Guilderland adopted its current zoning code, which had specific regulations about solar-energy structures, in June 2016.

There are currently three large-scale solar arrays in Guilderland.

In June 2019, Joseph Muia proposed to the the town’s planning board a five-megawatt solar array on a 61-acre field on his property that slopes upward beside Orchard Creek.

In February, the owners of Orchard Creek Golf Course proposed a land swap to shield their customers as well as residents of Dunnsville Road from what would be the largest solar array in Guilderland. (That proposed deal fell through but a land sale may yet see the solar array built at a less-visible site.)

There was backlash toward the Muia proposal among village and town residents, which sent the town scrambling for a solution. 

The Guilderland Town Board voted at its February meeting to hold a public hearing on multiple proposed changes — mainly additions — to its 2016 solar law. Guilderland adopted its solar regulations based on a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority model law; most municipalities have incorporated some of NYSERDA’s model law into their own.

NYSERDA had “come up with some more items,” Supervisor Peter Barber said of the proposed amendments introduced at the February town board meeting, which added some requirements for considering solar energy, including a visual-impact assessment required for “known, important views.” 

Included in Guilderland’s proposed solar law update is a stated purpose for the bill’s adoption that wasn’t in the original law: To protect “scenic and environmental resources by minimizing the impact of major solar energy facilities on parklands, trails, wetlands, wildlife, scenery, flood plains, historical and cultural sites, and recreational activities.” (See related story and editorial.)

 

New Scotland

New Scotland’s solar law doesn’t contain language as specific as Guilderland’s protecting “scenic and environmental resources … .” 

But New Scotland also has a planning board that is extremely conscientious when it comes to thinking about how proposed projects fit in with the town’s existing scenic and environmental resources.

And, according to the town’s solar law, no large-scale solar system “shall be constructed or installed without first obtaining a Special Use Permit and Site Plan Approval from the Town Planning Board.” 

In July 2017, amid an influx of inquiries into large-scale solar development, New Scotland passed a local law governing solar energy that is divided into two parts — one for small-scale solar and the other for large-scale projects. 

The law is based largely on a NYSERDA model law with some New Scotland-specific adjustments, which were aimed at preserving farmland and open space.

Nearly 18 months after the law’s passage, the first commercial solar field in New Scotland gained approval. And that approval took time and a lot of input.

 Throughout the process, planning board members stressed that they were setting precedent for the first commercial solar field proposed under the new solar code. That is why the board took its time to go over every detail of the project and took its time with project approval — and didn’t blink when the developer threatened to pull the plug on the entire thing. 

In March 2018, the United States Solar Corporation filed an application to build a 1.875-megawatt ground-mounted large-scale solar system at 331 New Scotland South Road. 

In April of that year, because of the way the solar law was written, Building Inspector Jeremy Cramer had to deny the application because there were prime soils located on the site where the solar farm was proposed to be installed. 

The town’s solar law had been drafted with the primary goal of protecting and preserving farmland and open space in New Scotland. 

The zoning board of appeals in June 2018 determined that the proposed location of the solar panels would not have been within the prime-soils area of the parcel. 

The project was approved in December 2018.

New Scotland recently approved solar arrays to be built on two town-owned landfills on Upper Flatrock Road, which will generate revenue for the town.

 

Westerlo

In Westerlo, the barn door was closed after the horses had all left, to paraphrase planning board Chairwoman Dorothy Verch.

The town board in August 2019 voted in favor of enacting a year-long moratorium on commercial solar arrays, commercial wind turbines, and energy-storage systems.

Verch said the moratorium was unnecessary because the town likely could not support more large-scale arrays due to the limited capacity of a nearby electrical substation.

Westerlo enacted its first solar law in 2017, and amended it in 2019. 

By August 2019, the town’s planning board had approved five commercial arrays, including Shepard Farm’s two arrays which combined nearly make up a 10-megawatt project. 

 

Rensselaerville

This rural Helderberg Hilltown drafted its first solar bill over the summer of 2019. The draft stated that the bill was written in accordance with the town’s comprehensive plan and was meant to protect public health, safety, and welfare.

A half-dozen residents raised concerns or questions about the proposal at an October 2019 session held by the committee that drafted the solar law. 

“The most challenging aspect of solar development in Rensselaerville is protecting the character and beauty of the town without boxing out any chance of solar development in the town. We need regulation; however, we cannot over-regulate,”  Jason Rauf, who leads the committee, told The Enterprise in an email, responding to a question about his foremost concern moving forward.

After the October 2019 meeting, Rauf told The Enterprise he’s “not sure at this point if we will hold another meeting...or if we will simply make some changes and present it to the board. It will be up to the committee in regards to how to proceed.”

There has been no movement on a solar bill since October 2019.

The draft bill itself said that solar systems installed prior to the law would not have not meet its requirements, but adding more than 5 percent to a solar system would subject the system to new regulations.  

Building permits would be required for installing any solar system.

Roof-mounted systems would be allowed to face any rear, side, or front yard area.

Ground-mounted systems in residential districts could only be installed in side or rear yards and must reasonably avoid or minimize blockage of views from surrounding properties and shading of property to the north.

For large-scale solar systems, all mechanical equipment would have to be enclosed with a fence at least 8 feet tall with at least 2 feet of barbed wire.

Systems fewer than 10 acres would have to have views “minimized from adjacent properties to the extent reasonably practicable using architectural features, earth berms, landscaping, or other screening methods that will harmonize with the character of the property and surrounding area.”

Systems larger than 10 acres would have to assess visual impacts on public roads and adjacent properties as well as submitting screening and landscaping plans.

As with residential panels, large systems must have anti-reflective coating on panels. Arrays are to be arranged so that glare is not directed on adjacent buildings, properties, or roads.

All on-site utility lines would have to be underground to the extent feasible.

Large-scale systems on designated Prime Farmland or Farmland of Statewide Importance could not exceed half the area.

If storage batteries were included, they must meet fire-prevention requirements and, when no longer used, would have to be disposed of according to town, county, state, and federal regulations.

Solar systems that had not produced electricity for one year would be removed at the owner’s expense. 

 

Berne

Berne’s solar moratorium, which was set to expire in August 2020, ended when the Berne Town Board unanimously approved a solar law in December 2019. The moratorium had been enacted in 2016 so the town could develop regulations. 

In 2017, the town’s planning board initiated the process of drafting laws to regulate solar arrays, but attempted to join both industrial-scale uses and personal uses, which Councilwoman Dawn Jordan in December 2019 said was a doomed effort. 

“You shouldn’t have small and large in the same law,” Jordan said, “so they split them up.” 

The moratorium had been renewed every three months until February 2018, when a small-scale solar energy law was passed, then the moratorium was changed to apply only to industrial-scale solar.

In December 2019, the town board approved a law that laid the groundwork for industrial-scale solar facilities, which will be the first permitted industrial-level use in the town.

The law oversees the fundamental aspects of the development of industrial solar facilities, with sections regulating the application process, special-use permits, design standards, security, and decommissioning. 

One company, TJA Clean Energy, had already submitted a letter of intent to the town of Berne, hoping to build a five-megawatt solar farm at 57 Canaday Hill Road, across the street from the Berne firehouse, not far from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools on Helderberg Trail.

But with the passage of the new law, TJA told The Enterprise in January that its hope of proposing a solar farm that spanned 25 acres had been complicated by the new law. The law states that solar facilities in Berne can be no larger than 10 acres. 

However, TJA had yet to officially submit plans to the planning board and did not say when that might happen. 

 

Knox

Knox hosted the first meeting on solar energy policy in Albany County back in 2014, and, in 2016, it was the first Hilltown to receive a proposal for a two-megawatt commercial-scale solar array — which it approved

The town amended its zoning in 2017 to include definitions and use regulations for small- and large-scale solar

Solar companies were sending letters to large landowners in the Hilltowns in February 2016, telling them they could fetch $1,500 per acre per year for a lease of 20 acres.

Also in 2016, a solar company that had been shut out from building a solar array in Guilderland just above the village of Altamont decided to head “for solar-friendly Knox.”

In 2017, after seven months of review, the Knox Planning Board nixed the same company’s proposal for a solar farm, describing the process of trying to obtain information from the company “like pulling teeth.”

Recently, the town has been scouting locations to install its own array.

More Regional News

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  • Graphs on the county’s website show the surge this January, with the Omicron variant still making up 95 percent of the cases statewide, was about three times higher than the surge last January, but, at the same time, another graph shows hospitalizations with COVID-related cases were about three-quarters the number in January 2020. Hospitalization surges typically lag about a week behind infection surges so the county’s hospitalizations, while they may be leveling, have not yet plunged like the infection rate.

  • The Jan. 24 ruling by Justice Thomas Rademaker of the state Supreme Court in Nassau County said Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration had exceeded its authority in implementing the mask-mandate rule. 

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