The Hilltowns’ first solar farm nears approval

The Enterprise — Tim Tulloch

The sun has always been a source of income for the Whipple family, who have farmed Knox soil for generations. Father Henry Whipple, right,  and son David stand at the edge of a field where sunpower may soon be the newest crop.

KNOX — The Hilltowns’ first commercial solar farm may be up and running by this time next year, says David Whipple,  the landowner who has agreed to lease his land  to a solar developer.

At its next meeting, the Knox planning board will review a site plan presented by California-based Borrego Solar for the solar farm.  

It will generate two megawatts of electricity.

If approved by the town, the facility —  which would be purpose-built to supply power  to the SUNY Polytechnic Institute campus in Guilderland and Albany — will be installed on 14 acres that are now mostly hayfields. The site is  just south of  Old Stage Road, a short distance from its intersection with Route 156.

In solar industry terminology, SUNY Polytechnic will be the “up-taker” —  that is, the power-user that has  contracted with Borrego for the electricity  the site will produce.

A two-megawatt solar farm contains upwards of 5,000 photovoltaic panels and typically costs $5 million.

But compared to the 30-megawatt solar array  at Brookhaven on Long Island, the state’s biggest, the scale of the proposed Knox solar farm  is modest.

“I did think about this for quite a while, along with the rest of my family,” Whipple says. “And we decided that a solar array is just another extension of the farm...Instead of trees or hay, the farm will be harvesting sunlight.”

Whipple said he has been in discussion with Borrego for two years.

“It’s a way to gain supplemental income in a responsible way  that’s better for future generations,” he said. The Whipple family has been farming Knox land for eight generations.

He said neighbors were contacted — his sister’s home will be nearest to the array — to inform them of the proposed solar farm. He says none were opposed, including  homeowners along Route 156 from whose homes the solar array will not be visible.

Any fears that Knox will be overrun by solar farms are unfounded, he maintains. “The grid can support no more  than five solar farms [of this size]  in the town of Knox, ”said Whipple.

Knox assessor Russ Pokorny told The Enterprise that a typical solar farm  lease may pay the landowner from $1,000 to $1,500 per acre per year. Whipple declined to say how much he will receive.

In February, Cypress Creek Renewables, another California solar developer, sent letters to large landowners in the Hilltowns, naming a price of $1,500 per acre per year for a lease of 20 acres. The company  has shown interest in leasing land in the Thompsons Lake area, according to Knox planning board chairman Robert Price.

Converting farmland into a solar farm increases  the land’s assessed value as well as the property tax levied on it. However,  solar companies typically reimburse the landowner for any added tax liability.

At a special town board meeting Wednesday — called to discuss a number of “time-sensitive issues” — the board directed the town attorney to notify Borrego that the town intends to  request a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) from the company. How the amount of that payment will be calculated remains to be determined.

The solar farm will have to be connected to the grid via a three-phase power line that runs just north of the site, parallel to Route 156. Borrego will work with National Grid to establish the interconnection.

Proximity to a three-phase power line is a prerequisite for solar farms and was a key reason Borrego chose the Whipple site. Whipple says an easement has been obtained from the owner of the land where the interconnection will be made.

At last week’s public hearing and town board meeting, the town board  voted unanimously to omit  a key provision  in a proposed zoning amendment  to regulate residential and commercial solar installations.

The provision would have limited the size of a commercial solar array to no more than 50 percent of the land it occupies.

That requirement — its aim  had been to ensure a “visual buffer” around the solar farm, says  Price — was deleted by the town board, at the request of Price and his fellow planning board members.

The change means the planning board is now free to decide, on a case-by-case basis, how big a buffer should be — depending on location, natural features, and other criteria.

Whipple says he expects the solar farm to occupy as much as 90 percent of the land he is leasing — two hayfields bordered on all sides by trees and hedgerows.

When standing in these fields — which are about 300 feet from Old Stage Road no homes or roads are visible.

The solar arrays will be about 9 feet high and will be surrounded on all sides by a fence for security and concealment. Gates in the fence will give access to a service road.

Price said noise will not be a problem. The newest solar array technology operates virtually silently, he said.

After the July 26 hearing, Borrego project development manager Rob Garrity congratulated Price on the  change to the solar zoning amendment. The removal of the 50-percent cap will allow Borrego to maximize the site’s utility.

Garrity will present his company’s detailed plan for the site at a planning board meeting scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 11, at 7:30 p.m.  in the Knox Town Hall.

Borrego is ranked among the top solar commercial contractors  in North America. A  2015 list published by Solar Power World ranked Borrego third, with a total of 232 megawatts installed.  (Topping the list was HB White Canada, with 408 megawatts installed).

The reason Knox may soon become the first of the Hilltowns to host a commercial solar farm could be due to its  early commitment to renewable energy.

Since 2008, a Knox-based volunteer group, Helderberg Community Energy, has been working to promote renewable sources.  It recently announced an agreement with Monolith Solar, which will build a “net metering” community solar array near Johnstown — one that will allow  any National Grid customer in east-central New York State, including Albany County residents, to access solar power remotely.

Almost two years ago, the Knox town board committed the town  to the New York State Climate Smart Communities Pledge to reduce  greenhouse gas emissions, “increase community use of renewable energy,” and “support development of a green innovation economy.”

The other Hilltowns

In another Hilltown,  the Berne Town Board at its June meeting authorized the town attorney to draft a six-month moratorium  for ground-mounted solar — both residential  and “industrial” solar farming — to allow the planning board to consider pertinent legislation and regulation.

Town Supervisor Kevin Crosier told The Enterprise that the aim is to formulate regulations to ensure that “everybody can be good neighbors.”

He expressed some scepticism  about the large-scale solar boom in the northeast.

“Where does the sun shine most? Certainly not in this part of the country in the middle of winter,” he said. “It makes you wonder if they [the commercial development companies] are doing their homework.”

He speculated that state tax-breaks may be largely behind the conversion of farmland to solar arrays.

In Westerlo, a draft solar moratorium awaits town board action.

It calls for the town to accept no permit applications for in-ground installations during the six-month pause.

Roof-top installations, however, would  be allowed because they  “require less tree-clearing and site preparation, can be visually integrated into the existing structure, and are subject to the New York State building code,” the draft states.

The six-month moratorium would allow the town to explore the impact of solar installations  “on the surrounding neighbors and street traffic,” as well as to get a fix on “issues that have not yet been considered or recognized.”

Ed Lawson, town deputy supervisor and code enforcement officer, says town zoning already sets residential solar standards, calling for a 50-foot setback, for example. He acknowledged, however, that he and the planning board seem to interpret that standard differently.

He says no permit applications have been received so far for commercial solar arrays, but he agrees the town needs to prepare  and look at how such larger-scale projects should be regulated.

The town board will discuss the proposed moratorium at a board workshop Aug. 16.

Finally, in Rensselaerville, nothing  in town law or zoning currently regulates solar installations, although town Supervisor Valerie Lounsbury says she expects that to change before long.

Mark Overbaugh, the Rensselaerville building inspector and code enforcement officer, says the town currently uses state-suggested standards for reviewing solar residential applications. He says about 80 percent of permit applications the town receives are for roof-top systems, the balance are for in-ground installations.  Applications come in at the rate of about one every other week, he says. None so far have been received for commercial arrays.

Updated on Aug. 4, 2016 with the typical cost of a two-megawatt solar farm.

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