The state’s newly created Office of Renewable Energy Siting announced the proposed rules for large-scale wind and solar energy projects earlier this month. Public meetings on the draft rules will take place in November, at five physical locations including Buffalo, and the meetings will be accessible by phone and internet.

While public input is encouraged, ORES will decide whether the draft rules become final.

The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, approved by the state legislature this past April, established ORES to review the environmental impacts of large-scale energy generation facilities — 25 megawatts or more — and make siting decisions uniform across the state.

While host municipalities must report any incompatibility with applicable local laws once ORES determines a developer’s application is complete, it is up to ORES to decide whether these local laws are unduly burdensome. By law, ORES has the last word on the siting of proposed renewable energy facilities.

 

‘Home rule’ threatened?

The towns of Cambria and Hartland are potential sites for solar energy facilities. With the release of the new draft siting rules, local officials worry about the effect on “home rule.”

“In Article 10, the burden was on the developer to show that local laws are too restrictive,” said Cambria Supervisor Wright Ellis. “Under the new legislation, the burden is on the municipality to argue their solar laws are not too restricting.”

Cypress Creek Renewables’ Bear Ridge Solar project, a 100-megawatt facility proposed over a 900-acre area, has met stiff opposition in the community.

“At least in Article 10 we had a voice,” Ellis said. “It was only two community members on a (siting) board of seven, but it was still something.”

“Article 10” is shorthand for the old state law that governed siting of large-scale energy generation facilities. The Article 10 process allowed host municipalities to nominate two ad hoc members of a state siting board. The ad hoc members were considered to be the local voices on the board.

Now, with enactment of the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, informally dubbed Article 94, siting decisions are made by ORES alone.

“We’ve always stood for home rule,” Hartland Supervisor Ross Annable said. “Whether an issue is supported or not, the town should have the say so of what to do and not (be) overrun by the state’s decisions.” Article 10 and Article 94 both limit the input of host municipalities in siting decisions, but Article 94 encroaches on the rights of local governments much more, he added.

 

Opt in or stay the path?

EDF Renewables proposed the 350-megawatt Ridge View Solar Energy Center, over approximately 2,500 acres in Hartland and neighboring Newfane, in the summer of 2019 and had already begun the Article 10 process before the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act was enacted. The law gives companies like EDF Renewables the option to go with the Article 94 process instead.

EDF Renewables has not yet decided which way to go, development manager Kevin Campbell said last week.

“EDF Renewables is reviewing the new siting law and considering the options and requirements for permitting the Ridge View Solar project. EDF Renewables is committed to continuing a thorough community engagement program above and beyond what’s required,” he said.

Campbell noted that the two siting processes are similar in that no permit to build will be given if a project comes with significant adverse environmental impacts. Article 94 has more mandatory community benefit components, he added.

 

Proponents and dissenters

One of the pro-solar advocates in Hartland is Jeremy Verratti, owner-operator of Verrati Farms, which would be a host farm for Ridge View Solar. Verratti sits on the board of the statewide advocacy group United Solar Energy Supporters-New York (usesny.org), and he’s a member of Solar United Hartland Newfane, a grassroots group that formed in support of EDF Renewables’ proposal.

Of Article 94, Verratti said, “I think overall, we’re hoping it will streamline the process while still protecting the farmer and the landowner. Verratti Farms can produce delicious foods and energy at the same time. ... as a portion of the energy portfolio, solar is a good thing. It helps the farmer locally and is a clean, emission-free source of energy.”

Verratti said he has not researched the Article 94 draft rules to understand how home rule is affected. He’s focused on educating the public on the benefits of solar power.

“The process is continuing in terms of the permitting process; they (EDF) have been carrying on even during Covid. Locally, they’ve continued to try to educate ... . All of us are really just trying to educate,” Verratti said. “When people are educated on it, we think they’ll like it.”

In the Cambria-Pendleton area, the membership of Cambria Opposition to Industrial Solar is keenly aware of home rule and Article 94’s effect on it. The grassroots group formed in response to the Bear Ridge Solar proposal has an attorney who’s currently reviewing the draft rules.

“We’re doing our due diligence and we will be submitting comment,” member Edward Saleh said. “The reason there is opposition to (Article 94) is the encroachment of property rights. ... It is more encroachment of home rule and pushing it down the citizens’ throats without our say.”

 

Intervenor funds

There are provisions in the Article 94 draft regulations for community members for and against a utility project to access “intervenor” funds during the siting process. The funds can be used to hire experts that help bolster the arguments against or for a project.

According to David Alicea, the New York lead organizing representative of Sierra Club, individuals and groups can participate as “community intervenors” if they demonstrate concrete and local interest in a project and if they reside within the host municipality, or one mile away from a solar facility or five miles away from wind facility. Such intervenors can seek funds by submitting a request within 30 days of a project developer filing its application for state approval, according to the draft rules.

ORES is scheduled to finalize Article 94 regulations on Dec. 6. The Buffalo-based public hearing on the proposed rules is scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m. Nov. 17 at Buffalo State College, Jacqueline Vito LoRusso Alumni & Visitor Center, 667 Grant St.

More information can be found at ores.ny.gov.

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