The Road To The Hudson Valley’s Solar Future
Since the beginning of the year, in the Hudson Valley as well as throughout the state, many municipalities issued moratoriums on solar developers’ plans to lease land in those jurisdictions for the purpose of building solar arrays. Because Governor Cuomo, through his Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) program—which calls for 50 percent of New York’s energy to be generated by renewable sources by 2030—strongly supports solar power and has signed legislation to encourage it, this situation appeared to be a significant setback to his (and the state’s) plans, not to mention those of solar developers.
However, this glitch in the expansion of solar is more apparent than real. In fact, the resolution of this problem will most likely lead to a stronger growth of community solar power in the Hudson Valley. But an examination of what actually happened is necessary to understand why.
When Governor Cuomo made his support for solar known, developers and attorneys descended upon small New York communities of modest resources, generating unease. In one small western New York town, for example, a large Seattle company looked into two nearby locations as possible sites for very large solar farms. In the same community, a nonprofit claimed that it had obtained a signed letter of intent from the owner of a parcel of about a hundred acres that might lead to a solar installation being built there. The town’s supervisor was quoted saying that, “They come in and start throwing their weight around and we’re behind the eight-ball. I said ‘No, let’s put a moratorium in place and see what we’ve got to do to make it fit our community.’”
But making solar fit the community may not be as difficult a task as it would seem from such incidents. Michael Warren, supervisor of the Ulster County Town of Marbletown, notes how his town’s Planning Zoning Committee met to review the draft of a new solar law which, after review, will go to the town board for a vote. “The issue has been about commercial solar, where large tracts of land are cleared and farmland removed destroying viewsheds, and also environmental concerns. That is why we wanted to have thoughtful regulations,” Warren said. “We are committed to alternative energy in Marbletown. I believe if we have a long-term energy policy without sudden changes, we can have alternative energy that will help the environment.”
John Maserjian, head of PR and Community Events for Central Hudson Gas & Electric, said, “Many of the proposed systems are large-scale solar farms, encouraged by a relatively new state program allowing residents and businesses to ‘sign on’ as customers of these large facilities rather than installing solar panels of their own… These larger solar systems can each occupy several acres, and communities may look at land use practices, visual concerns, zoning laws, and more. Each municipality must determine and evaluate its own policies and laws regarding solar systems.”
Jessica Ann Bacher of the PV Trainer’s Network at Pace University agrees that the moratoriums were a necessary step. Referring to the New York model solar zoning law that Pace Law School helped develop, she said, “The model law is helping governments with limited resources to add solar to their zoning laws and to regulate them. In many places, solar zoning laws didn’t exist, so the moratorium was necessary to provide time. This was a way to understand what the impacts and the benefits would be to the community. The moratorium enables communities to catch up to the market.”
Concerning the relationship between solar developers and the community, Bacher added, “Developers should be flexible about citing and location. This provides communities with opportunities to screen projects. Developers have to work with municipalities to develop responses that mitigate possible negative impacts.”
According to Mar Kelly, founder and Executive Solar Developer at District Sun, both the solar industry and local communities have their work cut out for them. “The national solar industry’s job is to bring solar to scale and continue to drive down the cost of solar. It is the local communities’ job to get creative. For example, farmers can raise high value shade crops with the solar array, or gain permission from developers to have events and tours to highlight the benefits of the technology. Solar can also be placed on ‘cow or plow’ ports that offer a structure that can be used by the farmer or landowner without degrading the viewshed.”
For Kelly, the main problem is political, not technological. “Solar is an elegant technology that creates electricity from sunlight with no moving parts, smoke or noise. It can be a major source of electricity, but it requires education and political will for this solution to accelerate. This is why Germany, with sunlight equivalent to North Dakota, processes almost half of all solar in the world, while places like Florida and Arizona have, comparatively, very little.”
Kelly added that she would not be at all surprised if, following the end of the local moratoriums, the Hudson Valley enthusiastically embraced community solar. “The Hudson Valley likes micro-brew and locally-sourced food, so it’s no surprise that this is how they want their solar, too,” is how she put it.