EDITORIAL: Let’s pick ripe kilowatts

HAVING TROUBLE SLEEPING at night? Put down that mobile device. Log off Facebook. Breathe deeply. Now, reach for your copy of “Local Law No. 2 of 2017” otherwise known as “Town of Copake Solar Energy Law.” Aaaaaahhhh…..

It’s 14 pages with rules lining up like so many photovoltaic solar panels. If your eyelids aren’t already heavy from Page 1, wait until see the “Utility-Scale Solar Energy Systems” section. Dreamless sleep awaits you. Seems like the Town Board has thought of everything down to the type of grass that grows in the shadow of what’s now called a solar farm.

You have to stretch the definition of farming if you want to include acres of land sprouting panels that generate electricity. But Copake is still a community where farming endures and the question raised by the law is whether solar farms are a welcome neighbor or a threat to the features that define the town.

The recent proposal by Copake veterinarian William Rasweiler for two 20-megawatt solar farms east of the Taconic Hills school campus along state Route 23 and on both sides of county Route 7 would not create the first large solar generating facility in that neighborhood. There’s already one on a small field near the school that helps cut electricity costs at Taconic Hills. But Dr. Rasweiler’s plan would be many times larger, covering up to 400 acres.

Dr. Rasweiler says that the panels would sit on a part of his family farm where the soil is depleted from years of growing crops. He says this would be an environmentally sound way to restore the land, since the solar panels aren’t permanent. He’s working with a solar power development firm from Chicago, which says the project would require roughly a $40-million investment.

After a hearing last month where residents and some Town Board members worried about the solar farm’s impact on Copake, the board unanimously adopted the 14-page law. The law sets high technical and environmental standards.

Copake has plenty of land to protect. But the level of detail almost seems like it’s meant to set the regulatory bar high enough to discourage backers of a project like the Craryville plan. That would be a mistake.

There’s a kind of gold-rush in this and other states as developers promise $1,500 or more per acre to lease land for solar farms. The Buffalo News last fall compared this frenzy to the one at the beginning of this century to secure fracking rights on land in New York’s Southern Tier. Some of this solar farm mania is a response to Governor Cuomo’s call for half of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030. Part of it is the allure of tax incentives. Some is greed.

It’s no coincidence that the solar “garden” next to Taconic Hills and the Rasweiler proposal both are in Craryville. Why? Because Craryville has the two key ingredients: available farmland and a high-voltage power transmission line substation. The substation is the key to moving power from the farm onto the grid. With current technology, the further the farm is from a substation, the more the farm’s power will cost. To predict future solar farm sites, draw a circle around existing substations.

Like Copake, many other communities have limited or banned utility scale solar farms. And the Copake Town Board has reason to protect local land after years of being victimized by Sal Cascino, who exploited weaknesses of the legal system to illegally dump waste in this town.

It appears that the town’s new law does leave open a pathway for a utility-scale solar power plant in Copake with protection requirements built in that a $40-million project should be able to meet. But public opposition could kill it. In that case opponents should be careful what they wish for.

The law probably will need some tweaking, but overall the Town Board has got it right… for now. Those 14 pages may not even apply as technology advances and whatever they accomplish we’ll still need more than fields of panels to arrest the speed of climate change. But this market-driven project is the best answer we have to the Trump administration’s indefensible fixation on fossil fuels.

I hope Dr Rasweiler pursues his project and that the board will modify any parts of the law that raise unreasonable barriers to this and similar plans. These solar farms won’t save the species any more than they will permanently mar the landscape. But they just might help us preserve the climate that nourishes us.

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