Copake adopts solar panel law that limits project scale
COPAKE–A new law regulating solar energy installations adopted by the Town Board April 13 limits the amount of land that a utility-scale system can occupy to 10 acres.
But the law also says every utility-scale project is subject to site plan review and approval regardless of whether that proposed system exceeds any stated threshold for site plan review.
That may leave some wiggle-room, but whether it’s enough for a proposed 400-acre utility-scale project in Craryville remains to be seen.
About 40 people attended the meeting and three of the five people who spoke at the public hearing conducted by the Town Board on the new law prior to the start of the regular meeting last Thursday, voiced support and praised those who carefully crafted the legislation and its efforts to preserve the values in the town Comprehensive Plan.
The plan calls for a solar law that upholds “the public health, safety and welfare; and to ensure that such systems will not have a significant adverse impact on the environment or aesthetic qualities and character of the town.”
During the board’s regular meeting, but before the vote on the new law, Hecate Energy Director of Development Gabriel Wapner gave a slideshow presentation about a 40-megawatt total (two 20-megawatt systems) ground-mounted solar project his company wants to build on a 700-acre farm owned by William Rasweiler, DVM, in Craryville.
The land is situated along the north and south sides of Route 23, east of the Taconic Hills School District campus, and on the east and west sides of County Route 7. New York State Electric and Gas transmission lines run through the property and a substation on the north side of Route 23 abuts the property.
Forty megawatts is enough to power 6,000 to 7,000 New York homes, according to Mr. Wapner’s presentation and the project would:
* Take advantage of existing transmission infrastructure
* Commence construction in fall 2018, and begin operation in May 2019
* Sell “green attributes” to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)
* Sell energy to the market or to corporate and municipal buyers
* Make an annual contribution to the town tax base, without drawing on government services
* Pull forward and pay future tax benefits as a lump sum if needed
* Locally source labor, services and materials to the greatest extent possible
* Create significant jobs and economic activity during 6 to 10 month construction process
* Collaborate with regional education institutions
* Strengthen the local grid with extra capacity
* Create a green community image
* Stop the use of pesticides adjacent to school.
Mr. Wapner said the project “would absolutely” increase the town’s tax base by at least doubling the amount now paid in taxes on the property. He said the project would be at least a $40 million investment.
He agreed that solar farms are “power plants” as one man referred to them, but noted they have no smokestacks, emit less noise than the existing electrical substation and use no hazardous materials. He said panels are crystalline, use no heavy metals and “no case of leakage has ever been documented.”
Mr. Wapner said similar projects such as in San Antonio, TX, have sheep grazing on the grass below the solar panels and consequently use no fossil fuel to keep it mowed. Along with grazing sheep, pollinator-friendly plant species would also be planted under the panels in this project.
Slides showed sheep pastured among the panels. Project renderings showed how the panels would be completely hidden behind trees planted for screening.
Mr. Wapner said he wanted to get a sense of the community’s receptivity and whether there “is a path for us.” His “major concern” was that the law as currently written does not allow a project like this, which is a “misfortune for the community,” he said.
Councilperson Jeanne Mettler questioned whether the solar industry is moving toward the use of smaller, more efficient panels and if in the future the same project would require a much smaller land area. She quizzed Mr. Wapner about the labor force and it was noted that while 50 to 70 people could be employed during construction, only a minimal labor force of one or two people would be needed to inspect or monitor the system after it was built.
The panels are supported by steel piles driven 6 to 12 feet into the ground. They are not set in concrete “just the dirt,” Mr. Wapner said.
Councilperson Stanley “Stosh” Gansowski questioned whether the panels were a hazard. Mr. Wapner explained the panels are like a sandwich with silver in the middle and glass on the front and back. “If the panel breaks there is nothing to leak out, it’s solid,” he said.
Jeff Page of Hillsdale wondered what would happen to access to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail if the project went forward. Dr. Rasweiler told him that he hoped the trail could be moved “a little further toward Route 23” but that “ultimately the rail trail will go through” regardless of the project.
Residents asked questions about what happens when the technology becomes outdated; whether the panels would survive fire or flood; where someone could go to see a solar project of this size.
Planning Board Chairman Bob Haight, who helped craft the law, said that firefighters would not enter the property to extinguish a brush fire because of the live solar panels and that a brush fire could be burning up to 100 feet from the edge of the lawn at the school.
Dr. Rasweiler said the project would essentially be sitting on an alfalfa field and asked if Mr. Haight had ever seen a fire fought on an alfalfa field.
Mr. Wapner noted that there would be buffers around the project area and that fire departments would have roadway access to any point. He said he is willing to work with the fire companies to get a safety plan in place. He said Mr. Haight’s concerns were legitimate but “addressable.”
As head of the Planning Board, Mr. Haight said he had already “heard so many complaints about the project. I can pretty much tell you that people are not in favor of it,” he said.
Phil Gellert of Hillsdale, who owns property in Copake, said people should not base their opinions on what was done in past projects, but should keep an open mind and look at its merits.
Edgar Masters of Copake Falls, who also helped draft the law, said that if this project is allowed, then there is nothing to stop more such projects and Copake could become a large solar panel.
When the vote on a resolution to enact the law took place later in the meeting, all board members voted in favor.
Asked this week whether Hecate Energy will pursue seeking a special permit for the Copake solar project in light of the vote, Mr. Wapner said, “We are evaluating our options.”
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Copake solar law highligts
THE NEW COPAKE Solar Energy Law regulates all solar energy systems and equipment installed since the law became effective.
With regard to utility-scale systems there are long list of things all applications must include:
* Plans and drawings of the signed by a professional engineer, a description of all components, whether on site or off site, existing vegetation and proposed clearing and grading of all sites involved
* An electrical diagram detailing the solar energy system installation, associated components, and electrical interconnection methods, with all disconnects and over-current devices identified
* Documentation of access to the project site(s), including location of all access roads, gates, parking areas, and other vehicular accommodations.
In the site plan:
* There shall be a minimum 100-foot buffer between any component of the utility-scale solar energy system and the parcel boundary line.
* No component of any utility-scale solar energy system may be located within 150 feet of any roadway, other than a private service road used solely for access to the site of such energy system
*Utility-scale solar energy system shall be enclosed by perimeter security fencing, to restrict unauthorized access, at a height of 8 feet with high voltage warning placards affixed every 100 feet
* The solar energy system, including any associated fencing or proposed off-site infrastructure, shall be located and screened in such a way as to avoid or minimize visual impacts as viewed from: publicly dedicated roads and highways, existing residential dwellings located on contiguous parcels
* Berm, landscape screen, or other opaque enclosure, or any combination acceptable to the Town capable of substantially screening the site, shall be provided
* All structures and devices used to support solar collectors shall be non-reflective and/or painted a subtle or earth-tone color to aid in blending the facility into the existing environment
* All transmission lines and wiring shall be buried and include necessary encasements.
The complete solar law is available on the Copake website: http://townofcopake.org