New York — and Cortland County — is in the midst of a solar energy boom fueled by $1 billion in state funding as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push for New York to produce 70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Cortland County has seen five commercial solar projects over the past year. Two have already begun, while the others are still in the planning stages. The largest would cost $90 million and produce 90 megawatts, enough electricity to power 20,600 homes; the smallest has installations as small as one megawatt. Together they add up to at least 146 megawatts of electricity.
These projects are just the beginning, and more are undoubtedly on the way, said Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Industrial Development Agency, the quasi-governmental body that is responsible for granting the payment in lieu of tax agreements, or PILOTs, that make these projects possible.
“I do think that we’ll see more of these big projects,” said VanGorder. “I don’t see how we’re going to get to that 70% threshold without them.”
New York now generates 12.9 gigawatts each year, reports the federal Energy Information Agency. Of that, almost half, or 6 giga- watts, comes from natural gas or coal. To get to 70% renewable or nuclear by 2030 would mean adding at least 3 gigawatts — or 3,000 megawatts — from sources such as the solar projects in Cortland County by 2030.
To get to Cuomo’s 2040 goal of 100% green sources, the remaining 3,000 megawatts would need to be converted to green sources.
Two projects — in Willet and Lapeer — have received PILOT agreements. Dan Dineen, the county’s director of planning, said these agreements ensure municipalities get something in return for hosting the projects. State law exempts solar projects from property taxes for 15 years.
The Willet and Lapeer projects, VanGorder said, are on vacant agricultural land, and the PILOT agreements, while offering the com-panies a tax break, also bring in money that might not otherwise be realized.
Also, certain types of solar projects provide electricity rate discounts to nearby residents, Dineen said. “Residents who choose to subscribe can get their electricity from solar at a reduced rate.”
Van Gorder cited several other benefits.
- One: Some of solar projects improve local electrical distributions lines; this is the case with both Willet and Lapeer.
- Another: “The community is doing its part to reduce its reliance on carbon-based energy, which is the goal of the state government,” he said.
- Finally: the projects offer construction jobs over six to eight months, which in turn give business to local suppliers, restaurants, hotels and gas stations, he said.
But for some local officials, this isn’t enough. Stephen Furlin, supervisor of the town of Solon, calls the solar projects “a scam” and “a money grab by these companies.”
Furlin argues the PILOT agreements offer “peanuts” to municipalities while altering the rural character of these areas and sending the electricity the projects generate downstate. He questioned why these solar “farms” — a term that he, a farmer, objects to — are being built so far away from where the electricity will likely be transmitted.
“Do they have to be out in the middle of our rural communities?” he said. “What financial gain can your town receive from this? You’re giving up a lot to get basically nothing.”
Furlin said he is drafting a law regulating solar projects that will be considered by the town board in the near future.
VanGorder, however, said the IDA’s job is to foster business development while helping local governments and residents.
“Our job is to balance the needs of the community with the subsidization of the project,” he said. “These major solar projects cannot be built without assistance from the IDAs generally. Our job is to facilitate capital investment in Cortland County.”
Here are the current solar projects either under construction or working toward local and state approvals:
Homer, Cortlandville, Solon: EDF Renewables
This 90-megawatt, $90 million project is the largest by far in power generation, money invested and area covered.
Scattered across properties on Shippey Road, McGraw North Road and Soshinski Road in Homer, Cortlandville and Solon, the project would use between 500 to 600 acres on land owned by four property owners, said Jack Honor, EDF Renewable’s development manager. The company has about 700 acres under lease and could bring in two more property owners by the end of the year. The project would send the electricity to the New York Independent System Operator to sell on the open energy market.
The project would create about 150 jobs during construction, and two to operate it.
The solar farm proposal follows on the heels of an earlier, abandoned effort to build a wind turbine farm on many of the same properties, and EDF Renewables is using that earlier application filed by the wind farm company to gain state approval through the state’s Article X process, largely bypassing local decision-making. It does, however, require four residents who are not elected officials to serve as representatives, said Furlin, who is selecting the four people. The process could take years to reach a conclusion, said Furlin and VanGorder.
Willet: Janis Solar
Site preparation begins Sunday on this $22.1 million 20-megawatt project, owned by Janis Solar, a subsidiary of CS Energy, at 5159 state Route 221 in Willet on property owned by Benno Spiehs. Construction will start next year and end in early to mid-2021.
The project would connect directly to a new substation that NYSEG plans to build in Willet over the next year. Janis Solar would sell the electricity on the wholesale market.
A PILOT agreement reached with the IDA would bring in about $2 million in taxes over 30 years, while providing about $3.29 million in tax breaks.
The project would require about 150 temporary construction jobs.
Lapeer: NextEra Energy Resources
This $27 million 15-megawatt solar project on 100 acres at 2223 Clarks Corner Road and 22160 Harvey Hill Road is being headed by NextEra Energy Resources, the largest wind and solar project operator in the world. The property is owned by SKNN Properties LLC of Ithaca.
The project will be built in stages. Two 5-megawatt portions are now under construction and expected to be completed by the end of 2019. The final 5-megawatt portion is expected early next year.
The project secured a 30-year PILOT expected to save the company $4.16 million in taxes, while providing $1.35 million in payments to the county, town and local school based on megawatts generated by the project, as well as about $243,824 in fire district taxes based on property improvements.
The PILOT agreement would not negate property taxes on the underlying property but apply to the property taxes on the improvements — that is, the solar panels and equipment — as well as exemptions from sales tax and mortgage recording taxes.
The project would also provide electric bill credits of 5% to 10% for nearby residences, estimated to save $6.7 million for residential customers and $3.4 million for business customers over 30 years, the IDA projects.
In addition, the project will provide $2.6 million in electrical infrastructure improvements in the towns of Lapeer and Marathon.
The project is expected to require 120 temporary construction jobs over six months.
Smaller Cortlandville projects
Two 5-megawatt projects are being considered on Riley Road in Cortlandville, Dineen said.
DG New York CF, the company behind these two projects, is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, said spokesman Bryan Garner.
The project is seeking local permit approval. The town planning board will consider a conditional use permit Tuesday, said project manager Janet Ward.
The project would offer about 700 nearby residences discounted electricity rates, she said.
Ward said she expected the project to receive all necessary approvals in December or January; construction would begin next summer and be completed by November.
Another project, involving six one- to two-megawatt solar installations is also being considered in Cortlandville on a site owned by Gutchess Lumber, Dineen said. The engineering firm working fronting this project is Keystone Associates, which did not return a phone message seeking comment. No further information was available.
Since 2011, 196 Cortland County residential solar projects totaling 6.8 megawatts have received $3.8 million in state funding, according to New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.