Big solar farming makes towns wary

Officials have second thoughts about commercial arrays and open spaces
COPAKE—The newest crop to sprout from Columbia County fields may soon be solar panels.

One large solar array (or solar farm or solar park…) has already been installed in a former corn field on the north side of Route 23 in Craryville. The 10-acre parcel is across from County Route 11A and will help save the nearby Taconic Hills School District a bundle in electric costs down the road.

Another is being installed on 21-acres in Greenport at 90 Blue Hill Road off County Route 31. The solar-generated power from that site will be sold to National Grid and will offset about 10% of the power consumed by two Albany healthcare facilities.

Copake Planning Board Chairman Bob Haight addressed the Town Board at its March meeting, telling members that the Planning Board had voted unanimously to recommend the Town Board institute a moratorium on the construction of commercial solar parks for a minimum of six months pending a review of town code revisions, which are currently underway.

Mr. Haight told The Columbia Paper by phone this week that he recently learned that landowners in Copake and other towns have received inquiries from power and solar companies asking about the possibility of leasing land for the installation of solar arrays which would supply power to off-site locations, not for the property owner’s personal use.

The town’s current zoning law, written in the 1970s, does not specifically address this new solar farm phenomenon. The way the code reads now “solar equipment is allowed,” said Mr. Haight.
In a letter to the Town Board, Mr. Haight and the Planning Board cited several reasons for the moratorium request, among them: existing code predates this technology; the code does not address what to do should the solar company go out of business; revisions in the zoning code, which have not been finalized, do not allow solar parks; the town’s Comprehensive Plan on which zoning revisions are based, intended to save farmland and fields, the “visual impact of the existing solar park was considerably more unsightly than originally thought.”

Copake Fire Chief David Proper, who has previously called attention to the challenges of fighting fires in structures powered by solar panels, told the Town Board in March that he and other area fire chiefs want to provide input and be involved in the discussion. “These are really big safety issues,” he said.

Last year, Chief Proper urged the Town Board to require that all structures bearing solar panels be registered so firefighters would know what they are dealing with.
In February 2015, Mr. Proper told The Columbia Paper said the panels can never be completely shut down, so that even when the utility company is called in to kill the power to a burning house, the solar panels are still producing electricity.

In Ancram, where zoning law revisions are already in place based on a new Comprehensive Plan, Town Supervisor Art Bassin recently sent out an email advising residents of his town, “If you are contacted by developer who wants to lease land for a commercial solar project, please be aware that Ancram’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Law do not permit large commercial wind or solar projects in the Town of Ancram.

“Our 2014 Zoning Law is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, which says: Revise zoning to allow solar and wind power for agricultural, residential, and small business use…. Exclude large commercial wind and solar operations as inconsistent with the rural character of the Community.”
Columbia Land Conservancy Executive Director Peter Paden said in a phone interview this week that the recent surge in commercial interest with companies aggressively reaching out to landowners seeking places for solar installations is likely related to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” or REV strategy.

According to the website http://www.dps.ny.gov, this “comprehensive energy strategy for New York will help consumers make better and more informed energy choices, enable the development of new energy products and services, protect the environment and create new jobs and economic opportunity throughout New York State.”

REV goals are to: make energy more affordable for all New Yorkers; build a more resilient energy system; empower New Yorkers to make more informed energy choices; create new jobs and business opportunities; improve New York’s existing initiatives and infrastructure; support cleaner transportation; cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050; protect New York’s natural resources and help clean energy innovation grow.

Noting at the outset that “I think solar is great,” Mr. Paden said this “reimagining of how we create energy” is not without its concerns. Many municipalities do not yet have land use plans that fit with this new solar farm reality.

Mr. Paden said he shares the concerns of the Farm Bureau that “any old farm field of 20 or 30 acres may not be a good place” for a solar array because it may be really good farmland.
There are practical questions like what happens when a solar company goes bankrupt and whether it is okay to graze cows under solar panels, he said. Characterizing the concept as not simply good or bad, Mr. Paden said, “I’m no big expert but I am open-minded about it and answers to serious questions need to be wrapped into this [discussion.]”

To that end, the Cornell Cooperative Extension Capital Area Agricultural and Horticultural Program is organizing a free, regional discussion meeting about “Renting Land for Land-Based Solar Arrays” April 21, 7 to 9 p.m. at five Cooperative Extension locations. The “in person” meeting is in Voorheesville, the others will be done by remote Webex broadcast simultaneously. Locally, the meeting is at the Columbia County Extension Office, 479 Route 66, Claverack.

RSVP online at https://reg.cce.cornell.edu/solar_meeting_201 or call 518 765-3518.
Cornell Cooperative Extension Agent Steve Hadcock said three or four speakers will cover a variety of aspects of the issue “to provide education to landowners about the opportunities and consequences of having a solar array in their property.”

Also, the Copake Town Board will take up the matter at its next meeting, April 14 at 7 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email

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