COPAKE—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has set high goals for clean energy and at the same time wants to protect valuable farmland for agriculture.
Can he have it both ways?
One group of local residents doesn’t think so.
An industrial-sized solar facility that will help the governor reach his energy goals will occupy hundreds of acres of local farmland. The governor has mandated a “goal of a zero-emissions electricity sector by 2040, including 70% renewable energy generation by 2030, and to reach economy-wide carbon neutrality.”
To that end, new state laws have streamlined the process for siting industrial-scale solar projects like Hecate Energy’s proposed 60-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility called Shepherd’s Run.
Headquartered in Chicago, Hecate Energy, a developer of solar and wind power plants, along with energy storage solutions, proposes to install 200,000 solar panels seated on steel-tracking mounts that follow the sun. The panels will physically cover 280 acres of a total 360-acre fenced-in project area. Most of the land where the facility would be located is currently in agriculture.
The panels would be situated in four main multi-acre arrays on both sides of state Route 23 and county Route 7 in the rural, residential Copake hamlet of Craryville adjacent to the Taconic Hills Central School and near the Copake Lake community.
The utility-scale project is not permitted under Copake’s Zoning Law, yet it is moving forward because Hecate has bypassed local law and is seeking site approval from the New York State Siting Board under procedures in Article 10 of the Public Service Law.
Yet recently Mr. Cuomo announced that “a record $52.5 million is now available through the Farmland Protection Implementation Grant program to help farmers across New York protect valuable and at-risk farmland. This is the highest level of funding being offered in the program’s 25-year history. In addition, for the first time, the program will distribute funds to each of the state’s 10 economic development regions, with $5 million being allocated to each region.”
In response to the governor’s farmland protection funding announcement, Darin Johnson of Sensible Solar for Rural New York issued a statement saying that while the governor’s commitment to protecting New York State’s farmland is welcomed and appreciated,” it “must go beyond press releases and additional funding.”
Sensible Solar for Rural New York, www.sensiblesolarny.org is a coalition of local residents in Columbia County opposed to the massive solar farm proposed by Hecate Energy.
In his call for action instead of words, Mr. Johnson said, “Unfortunately, upstate New York prime farmland is now threatened by both the state’s Article 10 process and the newly-enacted expedited siting process (The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act) for large-scale renewable energy projects… hundreds of acres of prime farmland will be taken out of agricultural use for decades should New York State approve Illinois-based developer Hecate Energy’s application for a 380-acre industrial solar facility in the middle of the Hudson Valley.
“New York State—and especially Columbia County—was built on the shoulders of the agricultural industry, and as such, prime farmland must not be lost forever or placed at odds with our statewide shift to renewable energy. There are many other ways to reach the State’s climate change goals, like siting large-scale solar developments in areas of the State that are less dependent on agriculture and the farm-to-table movement.”
Under the new Farmland Protection Implementation Grant (FPIG) program, “municipalities, counties, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and land trusts are eligible to apply for grants of up to $2 million each to help offset the costs of individual conservation easement projects that protect viable agricultural land from being converted to non-agricultural use.
“For the first time ever, eligibility criteria for the program have been adjusted to include the agroforestry, equine, and wine sectors, reflecting New York’s diverse agricultural industry. In addition, other closely aligned State goals have been integrated into the eligibility criteria to allow multiple objectives for certain projects, including food security, climate resiliency, and source water protection. Another first for the program, an incentive payment is now available to participating landowners whose project specifically incorporates climate resiliency or source water protection. Soil health assessments are also now an eligible project cost,” according to the governor’s press release.
CLC welcomes funds
Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC) President Troy Weldy told The Columbia Paper in a phone interview this week that so far the CLC has not yet received any applications for this newest round of farmland protection grants, but they were just announced last week.
Mr. Weldy, who took the reins at the CLC last September, said his organization is “excited” about this new funding and plans to submit applications on behalf of Columbia County farmers and landowners.
This is round 18 of the FPIG program. Mr. Weldy said the amount of funds committed is “substantially larger than in past programs” and was only $18 million last year.
According to its website, “The Columbia Land Conservancy ( https://clctrust.org/ ) works with the community to conserve the farmland, forests, wildlife habitat, and rural character of Columbia County, strengthening connections between people and the land.” Since its founding in 1986, the CLC has collaborated with partners to preserve the county’s vibrant rural character. “We have conserved more than 30,000 acres of farmland, forests, and wildlife habitat to ensure clean air and water, healthy ecosystems, a strong agricultural sector, and a rich variety of outdoor recreational opportunities.”
There is no application deadline for the new farmland protection funding and applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until available funds have been awarded to eligible projects.
Mr. Weldy said it’s unlikely that the new funding would have any effect on the Hecate project since land lease agreements are probably already in place and the project is so far along in the application process.
Other energy projects that have started construction like the New York Energy Solution (NYES) will also not be impacted. Work on this 54-mile electric transmission line and station upgrade will be conducted through portions of Rensselaer, Columbia and Dutchess counties from 2021 to 2023. In Columbia County the line runs through Stuyvesant, Stockport, Ghent, Claverack, Livingston, Clermont and Gallatin.
A Notice of Intent to Commence Work that was published in the February 18 issue of The Columbia Paper says that, “All work will be performed in an existing transmission corridor or on utility-owned property.”
In conclusion, Mr. Johnson said the Sensible Solar organization urges “Governor Cuomo and the New York State Senate and Assembly to protect our State’s prime farmland, and ensure it does not become collateral damage as we embrace renewable energy. Both are vital to New York State’s future.”
Asked for his input on whether the new farmland protection funding will have any impact on energy projects here, like Hectate Energy’s proposed solar facility in Copake, Hecate Project Developer Alex Campbell said he would not “have time to review the grant framework and opine on how/if it will impact solar” by last week’s press deadline.