October 22, 2021

Solar debate still burns

Despite wishes, experts say one-size-fits-all payment plan discourages development

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

A 15-megawatt solar project on 100 acres at 2223 Clarks Corner Road and 22160 Harvey Hill Road in Lapeer is just about finished with contruction. The project is being done by NextEra Energy Resources, the largest wind and solar project operator in the world.

John Soshinsky lives on Soshinsky Road in Solon and is leasing some of his 300 acres for a 90-megawatt solar project by EDF Renewables, which is expected to span the towns of Homer, Cortlandville and Solon.

The rental would help him save the land that’s been in his family for a century; the payment in lieu of taxes could help reduce his neighbors’ property tax bills.

Drive along Harvey Hill Road in Lapeer and glance to the side; you can see acres lined with solar panels in a soon-to-be-completed 15-megawatt solar project; another in Willet is expected to start soon. A plan for a pair of 5-megawatt solar farms was announced this week in Cortlandville, just west of St. Mary’s Cemetery.

All of them would generate revenue for both the land owners, and for their municipalities. But at what price?

For municipal executives, like Solon Town Supervisor Stephen Furlin, the income is just one factor. Quality of life is another.

So while planning experts and municipal leaders debate how to get the most money per megawatt, Furlin argues the PILOT agreements don’t provide enough money to offset the impact to the quality of life.

Still, some residents want the projects to move forward to provide a sustainable future for the next generation, while also giving them an opportunity for unused land that could generate revenue for them. The debate is far from over.

Lots of projects

Fifteen solar projects are now underway in Cortland County. The largest is the 90-megawatt, $90 million EDF plan that would produce enough electricity to power 20,600 homes.

A 15-megawatt project in Lapeer is nearly complete, with panels lining the hillside of Harvey Hill and Clarks Corner roads. Another 20- megawatt project is slated to begin in Willet once the PILOT agreement is settled with the Cortland County Industrial Development Agency.

Cortland County is looking at more than 150 megawatts in solar projects. However, all that combined is dwarfed by just one project in neighboring Cayuga County: NextEra Energy Resources is proposing a 200-megawatt project in Conquest.

Proposed solar projects

Summit Solar Capital (10 megawatts)

The side-by-side, 5-megawatt solar wind farm off Bell Crest Drive near St. Mary’s Cemetery is early in the planning stages. A representative of the Boulder, Coloradobased Summit Solar Capital met Tuesday for the first time with the town planning board to begin discussing the project.

Homer, Cortlandville, Solon
EDF Renewables (90 megawatts)

This 90-megawatt, $90 million project is the largest by far in power generation, money invested and area covered. It’s so large that the state Public Service Commission oversees approvals, not municipalities.

Janis Solar (20 megawatts)

Site preparation begins Sunday on a $22.1 million, 20-megawatt project by Janis Solar, a subsidiary of CS Energy, at 5159 Route 221 in Willet on property owned by Benno Spiehs.

NextEra Energy Resources (15 megawatts)

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.

Norbut Solar Farms (10 to 20 megawatts)

A 10- to 20-megawatt project is planned for Knickerbocker Country Club at 5471 Telephone Road.

Smaller Cortlandville projects
(10 megawatts)

Two 5-megawatt projects are being considered on Riley Road in Cortlandville.

The rush to build more solar projects comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushes the state to have 100% green sources of power by 2030.

It’s also a new revenue generator for farmland owners, said Garry VanGorder, the IDA’s executive director.

“So the companies are rushing to take advantage of the incentives as they exist,” VanGorder said recently at a special meeting of the county Legislature’s Agriculture, Planning and Environment Committee that included county and town leaders. “The state’s made no secret of the fact that the incentives are decreasing as time goes on, so they’re trying to strike while the iron’s hot. They also like rural New York because there’s plenty of farmland that isn’t being farmed or is leased or there’s folks that don’t want to farm anymore. It’s an opportunity for those landowners to do something that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to do.”

Striking a balance

After losing the family dairy business in 1989, Soshinsky said he’s had to lease or rent his land to other farmers. The income doesn’t help him much.

“It’s not profitable to own 350-something acres,” he said. “I lease out the property, but I’ll be lucky if I get 10% in what I pay in taxes.”

He fears the loss of the family property — which has shrunk almost in half over the years — but been in the family for 100 years.

Solar gives him an opportunity to save the family land, which would be difficult to market because it’s close to the county’s landfill. Other farmers he knows are looking at similar options. He worked with three to get a deal with EDF.

“It’s not going to be a gold mine, but at least I won’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay school and property taxes every year,” Soshinsky said.

However, Furlin said the solar companies are just “looking for whatever they can get for free.”

“PILOTs were designed to create jobs and give businesses tax breaks to stay in your community,” he said. “There really aren’t any jobs created.”

But it isn’t just about the money, Furlin added. “It’s about community. The people that live here have made it crystal clear that they don’t want this.”

By not giving up farm land for solar panels, the town is protecting the land it has, he said.

“There’s no difference between a solar panel sitting out in the middle of a field or a wind turbine or a pipeline,” Furlin said. “They scar the land that we say we love. That’s the thing we’re trying to save, but we’re going to do it with blocks of sola panels inside a chain link fence. If you’re content with driving up Interstate 81 and seeing our hills and valleys covered with solar panels then that’s what you’re content with, I’m not.”

The right amount

There’s a balance, VanGorder said, a sweet spot where the money a community gets a fair amount without scaring away solar developers. Too low, and the community loses out; too high, and it loses the project — and revenue — altogether.

But it’s not one set figure. Solar projects are unique when it comes to determining a fair PILOT rate, said Chris Carrick, the energy program manager with the CNY Regional Planning Board.

“What’s unique about solar is, yes, it has high upfront capital costs, but the fuel over the lifetime of the project is free,” he said. “There are ongoing operation and maintenance costs and certainly high finance costs and those are important aspects of these projects.”

NYSERDA worked with property tax assessors across the state to develop a fair method to establish PILOT programs. They decided the total income over time — not the initial investment — was the fair way to determine the payment.

For example, Carrick said, a 2-megawatt project would have a better return if it had to pay $3,500 per megawatt for a PILOT than if it had to pay $7,000 per megawatt. So would a 90-megawatt project.

Carrick said one of the most important things to remember is that “one size does not fit all because every project is different and unique.”

“I would caution you on establishing a uniform policy that is set forever,” he told legislators and municipal leaders in July. “I understand the impulse and the politics of the situation but I think it’s going to get you into trouble down the road.

Take it or leave it

But some municipalities want to charge a single rate for all projects — and they want all communities in Cortland County on board with that plan.

Cortlandville Town Supervisor Tom Williams said during the special committee meeting the town board adopted a resolution in July charging $7,500 per megawatt regardless of size. Furlin said he wants to see one flat rate across all the county’s municipalities.

“If other municipalities in the county don’t sign on, there’s the potential to drive business actually out of the county,” said Fred Forbes, the Homer town supervisor during a board meeting Wednesday. “It would behoove upstate New York if there would be a 12- or 20-county region that would sign on to this, so that anybody coming into these areas would have a pre-established rate to pay.”

However, what that rate might be is still to be determined.

“We haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” Furlin said. But once that number is decided, it becomes a matter of take it or leave it for companies.

“It would also help the IDA because the IDA would know this is what the municipalities agree on,” Furlin said. “The IDA would say, ‘Here you go, here is the plot offer the municipalities agree on.’”

The IDA decided to give towns the opportunity to adopt a resolution outlining the price per megawatt they thought was acceptable, which it will abide by even though it doesn’t actually have to.

“While it’s against this agency’s better judgement to defer to unrealistic PILOT agreements that could kill projects, it’s difficult to justify moving forward against such widespread headwinds around the county,” Van Gorder said.

They may leave it

The towns’ idea of take it or leave it could lead to fewer projects coming to the area, Van- Gorder said. And that means lost income for property owners and communities.

“There is a high probability that the projects would not be built in Cortland County,” he said. “Expensive projects like these are almost impossible for developers to finance without
some kind of tax abatement, so the IDA’s failure to deliver a PILOT in return for the investment would in all likelihood push projects to another county.”

“IDAs kill development deals when they fail to properly balance the needs of the community with the needs of the builder,” VanGorder said. “It’s a competitive world out there and most projects, solar included, can easily go elsewhere if the economics don’t work.”

Talks between municipal leaders are expected to continue. “We’re far from being done,” Furlin said.