This story appeared in the October 14, 2017 edition of the Cortland Standard. To become a subscriber, email us, or call us at (607) 756-5665. Back issues available by request.
Over the past year, a number of measures have come up in towns across Cortland County and in neighboring Tompkins County dealing with solar energy.
The towns of Homer and Virgil have passed laws regulating solar power and the towns of Preble, Freetown and Solon have started working on such laws, said Dan Dineen, the director of the Cortland County Planning Department. The town of Dryden has also passed solar regulations this year.
“As more companies are pushing solar developments, communities are seeing they don’t have the regulations,” Dineen said.
Dineen said it is difficult to predict future uses for land, so solar was not considered when towns created their land use plans.
To accommodate any planned residential or commercial solar farms, Dineen said a town usually amends its zoning law or creates a stand alone ordinance. Once a law is drafted, it has to go through a public hearing and be referred to the county Planning Board, which makes recommendations for projects and proposed laws before the towns can act on them.
“Drafting the law takes the longest,” Dineen said. “Once drafted, it’s usually a month or two before it’s adopted.”
The New York state government has been active in making solar and other renewable energy resources the standard. In 2016, Gov. Cuomo announced the approval of New York State’s Clean Energy Standard, requiring the state get 50 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2030. The project has an aggressive phase schedule, starting with 26.31 percent of the state’s electricity load in 2017 and growing to 30.54 percent in 2021. The goal is ultimately to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.
The state’s shared renewables program, introduced in 2015, allows people who are either renters or cannot afford to add solar panels to their home to get access to renewable power through community solar projects.
Dineen said solar energy hasbeen moving into New York state only recently. The United States Energy Information Administration says the states with the most solar generating capacity in 2016 were California, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Utah, Texas, New Jersey, New Mexico and Colorado.
One solar company, Abundant Solar Energy, which has offices in Rochester and Toronto, has been working on large scale solar farms in Cortlandville and for Cortland County.
Melissa Clark, vice president of business development for Abundant Solar, said it had been working with the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board for the better part of the past year assessing different sites owned by the county.
“We work with the county and ask them, ‘What steps do we need to take?’ ‘How do we inform the public of the process?’” Clark said.
Abundant Solar is working on 12 community solar projects in what it calls the “Northern Tier” of New York, with projects located in towns near Rochester and Buffalo. It also won the request for proposals from the Central New York Planning and Development Board to develop up to 40 community solar projects in the region’s five counties, including the two proposed proposed Cortland County sites.
Abundant Solar had mainly done business in Ontario, managing sites in Toronto, Mississagua, Burlington, Brampton and Scarborough. It is also applying to do business in the state of Maryland.
Clark agrees that Cortlandville needs regulations for the process to be transparent, but she is dismayed that it happened three-fourths of the way through the planning process. Becauseof that, if the solar project does continue, Abundant Solar may not be first in line to provide power to residents, because other utility companies would be ahead of it in the queue for using electricity lines.
Cortland County The Cortland County Legislature plans to work with the Central New York Regional Planning Board in Syracuse to hire a company to investigate the feasibility of installing solar energy systems in the county.
The county hired Abundant Solar to look at potential sites for solar farms, including near the county landfill in Solon and across the street from the county airport in Cortlandville. These farms would be built on countyowned land and are not subject to municipal solar energy or zoning laws.
At most, the potential systems could provide 2 megawatts of power each, which could serve all the county government’s electricity needs. They could also be used as community solar systems, where the county gets about 80 percent and the rest would go to residents and businesses.
A 2-megawatt solar farm has about 8,000 panels covering up to 10 acres of land.
The Cortlandville Town Board enacted a moratorium on solar facilities in September lasting until March 1, 2018, or upon the adoption of zoning laws covering solar facilities.
In August, the Cortlandville Planning Board rejected a proposal from Abundant Solar to build, own and operate a solar farm due to the town’s lack of zoning laws regarding solar. The planned location is behind the Cortlandville Crossing Plaza and near the Walden Oaks Country Club. The 14-acre farm would generate 2.6 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 340 homes.
The Homer Town Board passed a solar law in June governing both small- and largescale solar projects.
The law provides that if a small solar system ceases to work for 12 consecutive months, the owner must remove the panels, mounts and other associated equipment no later than 90 days after the end of the 12-month period.
The town of Preble scraped its solar plans, including a sixmonth moratorium on solar projects which passed in September, after a number of residents spoke about their opposition to the proposed solar regulation, saying it was too restrictive. The advisory committee will go back to the drawing board to further review the rules.
The proposed law would have allowed the installation of small, private solar panels. The panels can be either mounted on the ground, on the roofs of buildings or integrated into the building. Ground-mounted solar panels are prohibited from being placed in the front yard of homes.
The limit for residential systems would be 15 kilowatts and the commercial limit would be 25 kilowatts.
Freetown is considering passing a moratorium on the installation of non residential freestanding or ground-mounted solar energy systems lasting for one year from when it is passed.
The proposed moratorium states it will enable Freetown to adopt appropriate regulations for ground mounted panels, which are currently not regulated by the town. It does not affect any solar panels mounted to rooftops or existing buildings because they require less tree clearing and can be integrating into the existing structure.
The Dryden Town Board approved the site plan and specialuse permits for two solar projects in August after reviewing them for six months.
The two arrays, proposed by Sun8, a subsidiary of Washington D.C.-based Distributed Sun, include an 11-megawatt facility at 2150 Dryden Road and an 18 megawatt facility on Turkey Hill Road. They have an estimated value of $40 million and would create 150 construction jobs.
Dryden had passed a solar law in February, allowing the town to regulate and develop largescale solar projects. Companies were also given clear definitions of the size, location, position and types of solar energy systems allowed.
A pair of Article 78 lawsuits were filed against the Town Board and town Planning Board regarding the way the solar projects were handled.
SUNY Cortland and TC3
SUNY Cortland opened up its $3 million on-campus solar farm in 2014 near the Route 281 entrance to the school. It produces 1.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity and accounts for 6 percent of the college’s energy needs.
Tompkins Cortland Community College’s solar farm went online in early 2015. Their farm consists of 8,676 solar panels covering 10 acres and produces about 3 million kilowatt hours per year, about 90 percent of the community college’s electricity usage.
Cornell University also has a solar farm at its Ruminant Center in Harford, containing 9,333 panels and producing 3.275 million kilowatt hours per year.