Category Archives: Climate Change

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.


Project Update – Are We Getting the Desired Future Or?

You know this pattern:  Lots of people spend tons of time and money developing a plan.  It finishes with a fanfare, then as times passed it is spoken about less frequently.  Eventually people forget about the plan.  Then work begins on a new plan, because, well, we don’t have one. So, with this post we are trying to add something different to the ADK Futures Project, a review of how we are doing vs the 2011-12 vision – remember the vision?

In 2011-12, the ADK Futures Project ran a series of scenario planning workshops.  The desired future was called the Sustainable Life, mixed with tourism and supported by the Forest Preserve.  This also turned out to be most attainable among the scenarios, largely because much of it was already underway.  The broad alignment supporting the vision was what surprised people.  Now it is February 2016.  What has happened since July 2012?  How does it compare to the desired vision?

We have been collecting data, news items, press releases, reports and such since July 2013 and now have roughly 1000 items. We associate each item to its related event(s).  Over time one begins to see trends suggesting what is getting done, and what is not. Some events have lots of news, on other events nothing has happened, and some are clearly never going to happen.

The short conclusion is, wow, we sure are making a lot of progress on a broad range of fronts. Historic expansions of the Forest Preserve have been made.  Realignment of the health care system has been done.  Building out broadband and cell service is ongoing, making progress each day.  The renewal of Champlain Valley farming is gaining momentum.  The State and private sector have invested a lot of new money in recreation and tourism facilities.  And on and on.  It is very impressive, especially given the fact that no one is organizing, coordinating, or leading all this work.   It is happening, it seems, with the willing collaboration and distributed effort of many people to get where they collectively want to go.  Maybe this is democracy in action in the most positive sense of the word.   It is actually quite incredible.

There is too much information for a post.  We have written an update that organizes recent developments by theme.  For example, Agriculture, Recreation, Energy, Transportation, Arts and Heritage, Healthcare, and more, are each separate topics, where news related to the events used in the 2011-12 workshops has been aggregated and written as a short narrative.

The update is based on data collected, organized and posted here.  You can check on the data, follow the links and find out more about the progress we have made. We try to keep ‘evidence’ to things that actually happen; not ongoing debates but how the debates conclude.  We try to keep it complete.  A grant is made.  A project is started, finished or abandoned.  The APA makes a decision.  Voters pass something.  You get the idea.  Even with this approach, we already have about 1000 items of evidence.   Let us know via email of missing data, including a link to the evidence we should cite.  Thanks!

Click here for the PDF file of the update document.



Community Solar Farms Now Legal in NYS

There was a big event last July that passed by without notice.  The NY State Public Service Commission issued a state-wide order allowing community net metering for local power. People will be able to have solar panels at a shared location instead of in their yard or on their roof.  The new rules apply to other renewables like wind and small hydo sites.  People in Wadhams and St Regis Falls, for example, will be able to buy their power from the small hydro sites in their hamlets. Old dams will become more interesting candidates for restarting small power production.

The big news is it means people living in homes in the woods, on small lots, or living in apartments will be able to participate in solar power deployment.

A summary of the ruling can be found here.

Full text of the ruling can be found here.

Here is my quick summary

Any type of group can be a Project Sponsor except the incumbent power company.  It can be a business, a church, a town or non-profit.  The Project Sponsor has to build, interconnect and operate the array.  It also has to manage information and accounting for credits.  Members of the project (a minimum of ten) buy, annually, credits in 1kw units.  The credits are applied to their home power bill, valued at the current retail power rate.  You can only buy credits up to your total power consumption.  You can transfer your membership to others.  The maximum size operation is 2MW.  I find answers to the question of “How many homes could 2MW serve?” range from 330 to 1000.  In any case there are only about 1000 homes in Keene, where a group is contemplating a project.  Lots of Adirondack towns have fewer than 1000 homes.

I am not up on the current rules for municipal solar or schools, but there have been changes for them as well. Perhaps municipal needs and school needs can be handled on these sites as well, at least in small towns.  Large customers can’t use more than 40% of the array.  It is mostly intended for homes.

In the Adirondack Park, prime sites for solar will be old, now capped, town landfills.  Each town owns one. They must be kept as open land and have no other use.  It is common for solar arrays to be built on old landfills, much like they are built on rooftops.  Some of these locations are now transfer stations, so that have power lines in place and are easily reached by existing roads. The landfill ‘caps’ have membranes that need to be replaced every couple of decades, like a roof, and the Project Sponsor could be required to fund and install new cap membranes when needed.   In Keene, the old landfill is very close to the NYSEG substation serving the whole town. It is also home to town highway crew operations.

These arrays are set up to fit the contours of the land.  On sloped land, as in the case of capped landfills, the panel rows curve to the slope.  Curved arrays are less obtrusive and reflective than flat arrays.  Glare has been an issue elsewhere (airports) and there are a variety of ways to deal with it so the resulting array isn’t reflective, just flat black.  2.5-5 acres are needed per megawatt.  The largest it could get is 10 acres.

Old landfills offer cleared sites already owned by each town which should make the solar power almost the same cost as having panels on your own land.  If building the array included the cost of purchasing and clearing 10 acres, that would make it more costly than having panels at home.

Assuming it is not in a hamlet, a landfill array would require an APA permit.    Keene’s location is a perfect south facing exposure.  It will, of course, be visible, as a black area, from surrounding mountains, an issue that will come up in the permitting process.

There are, of course, lots of details you can read in the links provided above.  But this may be a real break through for making solar PV broadly available to Park residents.  At the moment, only a lucky few residents have a location and the space needed for panels at home.  May 1, 2016 is the official ‘opening day’ for this sort of project but proposals can be filed now.


Report Available on Second Adirondack Regional Responses to Climate Change

On June 15 & 16 we held the second scenario development workshop in our new series on how the region responds to the threat of disruptive climate change.  The full report on the workshop is now available. A diverse and engaged group of 29 people came together for the workshop and really advanced our thinking on these issues.  We encourage you to read the report.  We will continue the discussion at the CGA Forum on July 15 in Long Lake.  Please join our workgroup at the Forum.  The details on how to register are in the previous post.

Why is minimizing our carbon footprint so difficult?

Near the end of the December 2014 workshop on Adirondack region responses to climate change, someone asked a really good question.  Why was the “(C)Sustainable Life” scenario in the ADK Futures workshops of 2011 and 2012 considered most desirable AND most attainable while the “(A)Minimize our Carbon Footprint” scenario in this new workshop was considered most desirable but LEAST attainable?

A big difference between the two scenarios was the level of government, especially Federal government, intervention required.  The new scenario explicitly requires that governments put a price on carbon to create the necessary economic incentives to spur rapid adoption of clean energy.  Participants had already expressed their lack of faith in the top-down government led approach to capping emissions and thus it was consistent to believe that this regional scenario would be unattainable – Federal government is not functioning well today and no improvement is expected.

Another factor in our view is that the new scenario explicitly called for solving the harder parts of actually getting emissions in the region down by 80% of 2005 levels by 2040.  The older “Sustainable Life” scenario was much vaguer about doing good things to reduce our carbon footprint.  In the new scenario we focus on how to move away significantly from dependence on fossil fuels for transportation using a combination of electric and hydrogen vehicles coupled with efforts to reduce the total number of miles driven, a much more demanding scenario.

The new scenario posits that, over the next 25 years, regulations are enacted that put a price on GHG emissions all over the world.  The logic goes that the perception of the seriousness of threat of destructive climate change later in the century will increase during this period as the science will improve and impacts on the climate system begin to manifest themselves.  Large-scale change in the energy system requires engaging market forces by making energy sources that emits GHGs expensive relative to those that don’t.  As carbon prices increase, the rural northern lifestyle would be penalized because it consumes more transportation and heating energy than urban living.  Seeing this coming, the region can work proactively to minimize our fossil fuel use so are not impacted much as GHG prices increase.

Clearly the Adirondack region would not be the only part of the country hurt by placing a price on GHG emissions.  States that are big suppliers of fossil fuels (e.g., Wyoming, West Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, etc.) would see their economies hurt as their markets shrink.  It seems clear that to get a carbon tax adopted, those hurt by it will have to be compensated in some way.  This is how our political system works.  One idea, for example, is to grant most of these funds collected back to individuals and small businesses as a ‘carbon dividend’.  Thus, rural life might not be as hurt as thought at first glance, and adoption of such a tax might not be impossible after all.  It depends how the revenues are used.  Still, global adoption of carbon taxes in some form is hard to imagine as easily attainable.

Other aspects of this new scenario minimizing our carbon footprint that might be difficult to imagine are an almost complete abandonment of heating oil in favor of biomass, solar thermal, geothermal or electric heat.  Biomass for thermal is a competitive option vs heating oil in our region. In its Renewable Heat initiative, NY State is targeting replacement of old wood stoves largely for health reasons.  But soot and other black carbon particles are also a driver of climate change as they settle on arctic snow fields and cause them to absorb more solar energy.  The State will pay you to remove and dispose of your old wood furnace, AND give you a grant to buy a new state-of-the-art unit.

Lastly, the new low carbon scenario called for more clustering of our residents in fewer towns where people walked and biked more.  By living closer together, and closer to work, we drive less.  Clustered homes and businesses could share a district heating system.  Also, as storms worsen, we can better fortify and upgrade key community infrastructure (communications, water, power, fire, EMT, etc.) in the larger towns, not in every town.  Communities where people know each other and see each other daily are stronger, more cohesive than communities where most people live outside of town, isolated from each other.  Once again this raises the specter of smaller remote, more marginal, Adirondack towns fading away, a possibility that was raised before in the ADK Futures workshops and something that is widely rejected.

This new low carbon scenario is primarily about efforts to mitigate the impact of our emissions.  One certain contribution we make is keeping our forests healthy and functioning as a major carbon storage system.  Assuming a push to reduce emissions gets into gear nationally, we can benefit from cost reductions in new technologies as they are adopted widely, just like everyone else, e.g. electric and hydrogen vehicles.  But developing and testing new technologies will happen elsewhere.

To expect the Adirondack region will be a leader in mitigation is almost certainly a stretch, except for maintaining our forest carbon storage.  But we can do our part. A common argument against aggressively mitigating our region’s GHG emissions is that we have a negligible impact on the global situation.  But most regions could say the same – no place matters much, but everywhere matters – and therein lies the conundrum.  Creating a global economy that doesn’t depend on wrecking the atmosphere and the oceans requires everyone, everywhere, to make changes, including us.   To have these changes in energy use adopted widely in the region, we will need to get more people to see the consequences of not acting.  At the State level, there is recognition of the need to act.  At the county and local level less so, but talk about storms and you find support.  Getting local leaders, citizens and youth to the point of being aware of the problem, and participating in sensible changes, remains our biggest opportunity.

Summary of Results of First Adirondack Regional Responses to Climate Change Workshop

On December 11 and 12, 2014 a diverse set of 32 scientists, policy makers, government officials, non-profit leaders and concerned citizens mapped out different ways in which our region might respond to the threat of disruptive climate change. As we did for the ADK Futures project, we are using a scenario planning approach in which we consider multiple plausible outcomes for 25 years from now and map out pathways to get to them using events that could happen between now and the outcome horizon.  The full documentation of the workshop is available.  Here we present a summary of results.  Future posts will explore some of the issues raised.

The issues and options with regard to climate change are notoriously complex and because what we do will be affected by what happens elsewhere, we can’t just consider scenarios at the regional level.  Therefore, we set the context for our regional thinking with two sets of global scenarios.  First, we presented 5 scenarios for how the global climate system might evolve over the next 25 years.  These global climate scenarios are labeled:

  • C1: Gradual Change
  • C2: Faster Change
  • C3: Pause Ends
  • C4: Non-Linear
  • C5: Unpredictable

After some discussion, we asked the participants to rank order these climate scenarios from most probable over the next 25 years to least probable.  Here are the results:

global climate ranking table result

The result is pretty clear:  the most difficult to deal with climate possibilities (C4 Non-Linear and C5 Unpredictable) are the most likely (tied for first) and the most benign ones are the least likely.  Get ready for more bad weather.

Next, we presented 5 scenarios for the human race might respond to the threat of climate change at the global level.  Climate change is a problem whose worst consequences can only be prevented by global action.  These global response scenarios are labeled:

  • G1: Governments in Gear
  • G2: Bottom Up Progress
  • G3: Private Sector Leads
  • G4: The Oblique Path to Progress
  • G5: Panic!

Again, after some discussion, we asked the participants to rank order these climate scenarios from most probable over the next 25 years to least probable.  Here are the results:

global response ranking table result

This result puts most faith in the private sector(G3) and bottom up efforts (G2) and has the lowest expectations of success for top-down, national government-led efforts (G1).  This is realistic but it isn’t clear that we can avert damaging climate change without G1 and a truly global solution.

With this as context, the workshop focused on 6 scenarios about how the Adirondack Region responds over the next 25 years. These regional responses are labeled:

  • A: Minimize Our Carbon Footprint
  • B: Prepare for the Worst
  • C: Hyper-Green Human Refuge
  • D: Climate Change Laboratory
  • E: Don’t Panic
  • F: Reaching a Regional Tipping Point

After almost a full day of analysis and then a spirited half-day of plenary debate, we asked the participants to rank order these six regional response scenarios on desirability and attainability, just as we did with the Adirondack Futures endstates in 2011 and 2012.  Here are the results:

regional after ranking result

Unlike in the Adirondack Futures result (which we said at the time was highly unusual), the most desirable outcome here A, where we lower our carbon footprint, is the least attainable. Why this is so will be the subject of a future post. The scenario that got the most endorsement for action in the workshop is B, the one focused on proactive adaptation with the expectation of serious climate change in the future.  Scenario C, which says the region will be a winner on balance because of climate change, was viewed skeptically. The narrowly focused science and research scenario D was viewed as difficult to pull off and didn’t address enough of the region’s needs.   Scenario E that took a pragmatic, measured approach was seen as easy to do but undesirable.  Scenario F in which the region is badly wrecked by climate change was obviously undesirable but received a fairly high attainability score.

The end of the workshop was devoted to sketching out ways in which multiple endstates and layers of endstates might be integrated into a more complete roadmap for the next 25 years and beyond. One synthesis depicted change over time at both the global climate level (top), global response level (x-axis) and regional level (bottom).

adk cc synthesis diagram

The climate will worsen, eventually changing non-linearly.  The G2 (Bottom Up) and G3 (Private Sector) global responses predominate at first followed by more of a G4 (Oblique) approach and then finally as the climate worsens still, G1 (Top-Down) kicks in.  Regionally there is a lot of focus on mitigation and clean energy (A) especially as the private sector brings the costs down.  The intensity of our regional efforts will follow the triggers of the global scenarios with B (Adaptation) and C (Human Refuge) dominating over time. Seems likely that B and C will end up dwarfing everything else as the climate gets bad. In their view, D (Laboratory) is flat over time and so is E (Don’t Panic).  You continue to do smart, practical things (E) and you do great science although funding might be tighter in the future as money goes to adaptation.

In future posts we will dig into specific scenarios and their implications.

Report Available on First Climate Change Response Workshop

On December 11 and 12 we held our first workshop in a new series about how the region responds to the threat of disruptive climate change.  Despite a big snow storm the two days prior, 32 people made it to Paul Smith’s College to spend two days examining six alternative scenarios for how the region might respond.  Although there are some tweaks to make to the starting framework, in general the group found the framework useful.  We plan to hold more of these workshops starting sometime in May 2015.  We would like to develop a half-day version as we did in the original ADK Futures workshop series.  In the weeks to come we will be writing a few posts about issues and conclusions raised in this first climate change workshop.  For now, you can read the full report on the workshop.