SHULTZ: Making solar power work for us

Jim Shultz

Once again, a group of neighbors has come forward to raise serious questions about a large scale solar project in our community. This time it is about a 50-acre solar field proposed in the town of Lockport, at Slayton Settlement and Day roads. Those who live nearby packed a recent town planning board meeting and expressed their concerns about what that solar development would look like, sound like, and what impact it might have on the land and water around it.

The community choices we are making right now about solar power are a lot like the choices we make as families when we buy a car or a house. We can make decisions that are well-informed and wise, or we can make a mess of it. And making a mess of it has serious consequences. As a community, county-wide, we need a serious and thoughtful plan for how to make solar power work for us.

Solar power can be a great thing. Thanks to the panels on my roof, my family’s monthly electricity bill from NYSEG is $16. That is year round, snow or shine. Our system paid for itself the minute we switched it on, by increasing the value of our home. It will pay for itself again in energy savings in its first five years, and then keep generating free power on top of that for another 20 years. We do our laundry in a solar-powered washer and dryer. We’ve also stopped dumping two tons a year of carbon into our children’s fragile atmosphere.

Industrial-scale solar projects, however, are more complicated.

Niagara County is a major target for large-scale solar developers. That’s because we have the three ingredients they need most: open land, owners willing to lease it, and proximity to some of the largest power cables in New York state. That attraction can be a huge opportunity if we are smart about it. But what we have right now is a set of ad hoc projects driven by corporate solar developers.

Companies that aren’t from anywhere near here come swooping in and they decide where the solar fields should go. They decide how big they should be. They make the basic choices of how the fields will be designed. They even decide how much money they will pay to local communities. This is not how we do solar smart.

I don’t blame our local officials for this. These projects are complicated and hard to evaluate. But the result is that we are making some uninformed and bad choices.

Last fall the Lockport Common Council took up a proposal for an $11 million solar field on Summit Street. The company is already set to get $5 million in federal and state subsidies to help build it. On top of that, it wants Lockport to slash its local taxes by more than 80%. When questions were raised about that giant tax break, one alderman warned that asking for anything more would just chase the company and the project away. That’s just silly. A solar developer that has already sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into prepping a project is not going to walk because the city thinks it should get more in tax revenue than what it costs to put on the annual fireworks show. This is the kind of fuzzy thinking that could lock in foolishness for decades.

One of the rallying cries of those who oppose solar development is "home rule" — keeping solar decisions in the hands of our communities and not state officials. That’s fine, but then let’s take home rule seriously and do the work. Being smart doesn’t mean taking whatever deal a solar developer puts on the table. It also doesn’t mean making up stories about batteries that explode like bombs or solar panels that use more energy to manufacture then they generate (neither is true).

Doing solar right can help make our local farms more economically sustainable. It can generate badly needed revenue for local schools and services, and it can help contribute to a clean energy future. Being smart on solar means looking together at three fundamental questions:

1. How much large scale solar development should we have here, where should it be sited, and how much of our farmland can we afford to take out of production in the process?

2. How do we make sure that solar developments are designed to protect our environment and the rural nature of the communities where they would be built, both in their design and in what happens down the road when the project comes to an end?

3. How do we make sure that the companies involved pay a fair share to our communities?

Doing solar smart is also about a lot more than just dealing with these corporate solar projects. Why aren’t we putting panels on the roofs of our schools and other public buildings across the county, to cut the expensive energy costs we pay for as taxpayers? Batesville, Arkansas, a city with half the population of Lockport, is using solar panels on its schools to save $600,000 a year in energy costs.

The push for solar power is about the urgent need to move away from the fossil fuels that are heating up the planet and threatening our children’s future. But many of those who question these large scale projects are also motivated by an environmental concern — the stewardship of the land. We need to protect both the planet and the land at the same time. We can do that here in Niagara County, if we join together, do our homework, listen to one another, and act smart.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.

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