Home Opinion The Community Solar Conundrum | Pros, Cons, and Politicization of Renewable Energy

The Community Solar Conundrum | Pros, Cons, and Politicization of Renewable Energy

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Benefits of community solar outweigh the drawbacks

The 2021 Texas power crisis renewed the renewable energy debate among politicians and in the court of public opinion. And now, some New York residents are calling into question the benefit of proposed green energy initiatives as the state ramps up its own version of the Green New Deal.

Initially the Texas power outage, which left 4.5 million homes and businesses without power and led to 70 deaths, was blamed on frozen wind turbines and solar panels by Republican lawmakers, including most vocally Gov. Greg Abbott. Texas runs 80-90 percent on fossil fuels and renewable-energy shortages accounted for only about 13 percent of the total outages in Texas. Ultimately the state’s energy deregulation, frozen natural gas equipment, and lack of winterization methods were to blame.

In stark contrast to Texas, New York State has made a strong commitment towards its version of the Green New Deal. After passing the New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, the excelsior-inspired goal is to obtain 70 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources in nine years and a 100 percent carbon-free electricity sector by 2040.

State supported, large-scale renewable projects aren’t exactly new. New York first launched community solar in 2015. It’s one of only a few states in the nation to offer such a program, including Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Rhode Island. 

For those not familiar with New York State Energy Research Development Agency’s (NYSERDA) community solar program, it’s an initiative that expands access and opportunities to choose clean energy. The state works with approved community solar farms to convert and connect energy to the utility grid, replacing fossil fuels. This clean energy is then distributed through the electrical grid; and anyone who decides to enroll in the free program receives clean energy credits, resulting in savings each month to their electricity bill.

Community solar doesn’t require installing arrays on your rooftop or property. instead, it makes it possible for small businesses, renters, and low income households to go solar. It’s simply a way to connect more clean energy to the grid.

Nothing changes at all in terms of how electricity is delivered to consumers. Community solar doesn’t require installing arrays on your rooftop or property. Instead, it makes it possible for small businesses, renters, and low income households to go solar. It’s simply a way to connect more clean energy to the grid.

According to a 2019 article by Jim Shultz, The Renewable Energy Rebels, our state is a prime target for programs like community solar and wind development because it possesses the ingredients developers need most: open (cheap) land, landowners willing to lease it, and close access to high-capacity power transmission cables.

What’s good for developers, however, may not align with what the neighbors want or even understand about renewable energy. New Yorkers are voicing concerns about solar farms, even among those who are environmentally conscious. Some claim they take up prime farmland, pose a threat to wildlife, and/or alter vistas and change the landscape. Not to mention the deep-seeded, politician perpetuated resentment of downstate by upstate residents. Why are we ripping up our land to keep the lights on in NYC? — and other, let’s just say, less-than-cordial comments this author has read in regards to NYS’ proposed 250-mile, green energy superhighway project designed to deliver power downstate. Construction has already started on the 86-mile Smart Path project from Massena to Croghan, and construction is slated to start on several projects in Western New York, Mid-Hudson, and the Capital Region.

These are issues that need to be addressed if we are ever going to move towards a mutual understanding of the importance of renewable energy and compromise in this time of climate crisis. It’s about finding the balance and taking into account some very valid concerns of local municipalities and residents as we race against the Doomsday Clock.

In late 2020, NYSERDA awarded 21 solar projects (three with energy storage, and one hydroelectric facility) to develop 2,111 megawatts of new, renewable energy capacity throughout New York State. In the Mohawk Valley region, this includes four projects:

  • Mill Point Solar: ConnectGen will build a 250 megawatt solar facility in the Town of Glen, Montgomery County. 
  • SunEast Augustus Solar: SunEast Development will build a 19.99 megawatt solar facility in the Town of Augusta, Oneida County. 
  • SunEast Flat Creek Solar: SunEast Development will build a 200 megawatt solar facility in the Town of Root, Montgomery County. 
  • SunEast Flat Stone Solar: SunEast Development will build a 19.99 megawatt solar facility in the Town of Verona, Oneida County.

In at least one of these towns, solar and wind are meeting resistance. At the February 17, 2021 Town of Augusta public hearing, local laws were unanimously approved and filed with the state including Local Law 2, creating a 12-month, temporary moratorium on establishing or developing any new solar energy facilities in the towns, or issuing any approvals or permits; and Local Law 3, the opting out of real property tax exemption for Solar and Wind Energy Systems.

From Local Law 2: 

The Town anticipates that there may (be) an increase in the demand for this type of energy producing facility in the Town and that it may receive a number of new applications for, and inquires about the establishment or enlargement of energy producing activity within the Town.

The question of integrating energy production facilities within the Town’s existing pattern of predominately residential and agricultural land use emphasizes the need for suitable siting, land use standards with reference to energy production facilities, consistent with provisions of law.

The Town Board of the Town desires to address, in a careful manner, this integration question on a comprehensive town-wide basis, rather than on an ad hoc basis, and to adopt Local Law provisions to properly regulate the same. 

At the time of publication, AV could not locate minutes from the Augusta hearing to report on any public statements made for or against the matter. Nor is it clear if there are any political motivations behind these new local measures. The complete local laws are posted to www.townofaugusta.org.

As Shultz wrote, The driving force behind these projects is more than politics, however; it’s economics. For the companies involved, these are lucrative prospects thanks in part to heavy subsidies from federal and state taxpayers. But rural communities are starting to pose some hard questions about why they are being asked to add huge tax breaks of their own for renewable energy projects that offer few local benefits.

Perhaps that’s what town officials in Augusta were wondering.

Even with the potential social, economic, and political impacts, wind and solar provide a far more environmentally-friendly solution to energy production and ever-growing consumption. And with respect to those who claim these systems harm and disrupt wildlife — enter agrivoltaics, the co-developing of land for both solar use and agriculture.

For example, Common Energy, one of the state-approved subscribers for community solar in New York State, is partnering with a developer who’s constructing a solar farm/cranberry bog in Massachusetts.

Not all towns are putting the brakes on renewables. Recently, the Town of New Hartford passed a law allowing solar farms to be built on town-owned property. The two potential locations are on Route 12 near Sherrill Brook Park or on Middle Settlement Road, across from Special Metals. They expect to go out to bid for solar companies this spring.

The State has made a commitment to drastically reduce carbon emissions and build a robust, green economy with special emphasis on benefitting marginalized communities, and rightfully so.

What is the answer when many towns are resistant to opening up land for solar and wind projects? When local politicians don’t believe in the climate crisis? When zoning and planning committees don’t possess the knowledge nor have the full picture as to potential social, economic, or environmental impacts of solar and wind farms? What happens when residents en mass proclaim, “not in my backyard!“?

It’s a complicated matter, yet there are some simple solutions. The first is never stop learning. Educate yourself on the very real climate crisis. Continue to read and understand the benefits of renewables as new technology and practices emerge.

Second, armed with the knowledge, raise your voice for your local community. Attend your town board or city council meetings and share your awareness of community solar and wind energy to help dispel myths or misunderstandings.  

There are no perfect means of energy production, but when weighing all of the pros and cons, solar and wind win out. 

To learn more about Community Solar for residents in NYS, visit NYSERDA. To see if you’re eligible to enroll in community solar, visit such approved subscribers as Common Energy.

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