What I’ve Learned About Community Solar Farms

Community solar farms became legal in NYS in May.  I had imagined building such a facility at the Keene Transfer Station for a long time.  It is our long-closed and capped landfill, now a mowed field with a fabulous view, the garbage/recycling place and town highway operations center. Capped dumps are used for solar farms in many places so I wanted to look into doing this sort of thing here as a model for other towns to follow.  The town owns the land, it can’t be used for much else and it must remain open, mowed annually to keep trees from growing.  These solar sites need 3-phase power lines in place and Keene has this at the nearby highway department building.

Technically, there is no problem.  After all, panels are on often roof tops without creating leaks, and the problem is similar.  Like a roof, you cannot perforate the liner covering the capped area, so instead the panels are attached to racks that are held down with heavy pre-cast pieces of concrete laid on the ground.  In urban areas where this is done all the time there is no cost penalty.  Out here in the sticks, this is not normal, and equipment has to be brought in to do the work.  There is an extra DEC permit involved in using a landfill.   But with little open land owned by towns in the Park, this could be a viable option.

The problem for the Keene site is that it is too small.  These solar farms are allowed be 2mw, but we only have space for about 40% of that.  The town needs 1/3 of the site’s capacity for municipal power.  What is left can only serve about 50 homes which raises the question of who gets to use it.  A full scale site would serve 3-400 homes.

What is happening state-wide is that businesses are organizing to build such projects in all 10 power distribution regions.  They will spread the fixed costs of operations across thousands of customers. So our old landfill would be a high cost site serving a small number of residents. That is not a recipe for success.

The people who loan money for these projects are hesitant about using dumps. So we spent some time looking for alternate sites.  The town-owned open fields are all in the flood plain, and the financing people won’t fund flood-plain projects because you cannot buy insurance for them.  Other town owned land is forested and more remote.  The cost of removing a forest, and building 3-phase power lines kill the economics of using most forested land.  So businesses are leasing private open fields where power lines already in place.  These large multi-site operators will strive to offer solar PV to everyone.

Your best, cheapest, option will be panels on your own land, or roof.  Adding the cost of someone else’s land will always make community solar more expensive.  It will still be desirable for people with homes in the forest (many in our region), and it may even be 100% financed, but the cheapest option will be using your own land.

The closed, capped, Keene dump is likely still be a good site for a municipal solar PV farm.  It is being looked into.  The town uses power for various buildings, the drinking water systems (we have two), street lighting, and so on.  It may be small enough that it doesn’t need to be on the capped area. But the site is not large enough to use for a 2mw residential solar PV farm.

Other Adirondack towns may have town owned open fields to use, or larger landfills but most will find it hard to come up with a decent site.

The utility amendment to Article 14 that recently achieved first passage had all the ideas about green power stripped out of the early proposal.  Given the threats of climate change, actually giving 10 acres to each of our 102 towns for a solar site would be a wise thing to encourage. This would have needed 1020 acres out of 3 million.  It could have moved the whole Park into the fight to mitigate climate change, fostering a new sense of active environmentalism, participating in solving environmental problems larger than our own.  We have done it before with our successful fight against acid rain.  But not-in-my-backyard wisdom prevailed and our region’s leading environmental advocates decided to oppose any green power at all.    It is odd to live in a place so protected that we can’t actually participate in the great quest to save the planet.  Bill McKibben ran into the same issue years ago when vocally supported building windmills at an old mine site in Johnstown.  They were ultimately denied permits.  He left the region, and moved to Vermont.

 

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