By Gwendolyn Craig
It was 2018 when Colleen Parker’s phone at the Adirondack Park Agency started to ring every month with solar company proposals. The calls were not from groups based in Albany, New York City or the Adirondacks.
“Solar companies in Montana, California and all over the country were starting to look at the Adirondacks,” Parker, an environmental program specialist with the APA, said.
With no specific regulations or permits for renewable energy projects at the APA or at the town and village level, the projects were put into a pre-application phase and staff got to work on a large-scale solar permit. Just under a dozen towns and villages among the park’s 101 have since created zoning laws for solar facilities, too. The projects Parker was getting calls about three years ago are now starting to be approved.
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Since the end of last year the APA has approved three 5-megawatt solar facilities, two in the Town of Ticonderoga and one in the Town of Moriah, both in Essex County. The Moriah facility is the latest one, approved by the APA board on Friday.
More are in the pipeline. The seeming rush of permits had caused APA board members last month to hesitate when it came to approving more. On Thursday and Friday, the APA took a more comprehensive look at its solar permit, where projects are getting proposed in the park and what these could mean for the aesthetics, farmland, forest, wildlife, wetlands and stormwater.
“We’re balancing a lot of issues here,” said Matt Tebo, Department of State designee on the APA board. “We’re doing that against society’s voracious need for power and the overall ubiquitous good that we get from moving away from fossil fuels and of course the right of private property owners.”
Tebo and others pointed to the struggle of approving solar projects one-by-one and how that can make it difficult to see the greater future impact. Board members also stressed while they want to support more renewable energy projects in the park, they don’t want to look around one day and see solar panels everywhere. Others had an even more grim view, wondering what the landscape would look like a few decades from now when projects’ lifespans were up.
The lay of the land
So what’s already happening in the park?
“We’re going to take a 6-million-acre view of the applications collectively,” said Matt Kendall, an environmental program specialist with APA.
Prior to the approval of the 5-megawatt Moriah project, Kendall’s presentation showed the APA had already approved two 5-megawatt solar projects . Together they would provide electricity to between 1,500 and 2,100 homes and take up 69 acres.
There are three active applications and 10 pre-applications with the APA, and with the addition of the Moriah project, there is a third application permitted. Combining the projects reviewed and under review, the APA is looking at projects that would take up a total of 689 acres of fenced area or about 0.01% of the park with the overall production 124 megawatts. That would produce enough electricity to power around 18,750 homes, Kendall said.
The majority of these projects are on agricultural lands. A map showing where those are in the park emphasized how rare agricultural lands are, and how concentrated in the Champlain Valley. But, staff told board members, some of the proposed projects in the pre-application phase are on forestlands.
Kathy Regan, APA deputy director, said once companies learn that the Adirondack Park’s “woodlands are riddled with wetlands and steep slopes,” they “realize it’s not such a great place after all” for solar projects.
Zoe Smith, an APA board member, asked if the state is looking at the carbon cost of cutting trees versus the benefit of solar power. Terry Martino, executive director of the APA, said that is something getting discussed through the Climate Action Advisory Council, a group meeting about the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
The APA is also assisting local municipalities with how to handle the increase in renewable energy projects, particularly around solar. In 2020, APA staff reviewed 10 local zoning codes and conducted 152 consultations with local officials, said Robyn Burgess, a planning specialist with the APA. Of the 11 towns that have zoning laws around solar projects, eight require surety in the form of a bond or funding reserve for decommissioning solar facilities.
Not all solar facilities will need APA’s review and approval, however. The first community solar project in the park just outside the village of Saranac Lake did not need APA approval because it was in a hamlet and did not meet any other APA jurisdictional criteria. Facilities 25 megawatts and greater go through the new Office of Renewable Energy Siting, which includes the project at the former Benson Mines in St. Lawrence County. The APA may have a role in that project, but staff said this week that they are still reviewing it.
Following the staff presentations, APA board member John Ernst asked if staff had a sense of how big solar was going to be in the park.
“Does anybody have a sense of where this is going?” Ernst said. “Is the object going to be to provide enough solar for business and residents in the park, or is it looking to go beyond that?”
Martino said with the state looking to get 6,000 megawatts of solar generation by 2025, solar projects are growing across the state.
“We’ll see how that trends moving forward,” added Chris Cooper, an APA attorney. “Even though we’re looking at it individually at this point, we still review each and every one of them for undue adverse impacts.”
Moriah solar project approved
Following the solar discussion on Thursday, the board heard more specifics about the Moriah solar project and was overall not keen on the visual impacts.
The project will be on vacant farm fields in the area of Tarbell Hill Road and Dugway Roads, though some of the fields had been recently used for bailing hay. The developers will also clear about 15 acres of trees. The project is expected to produce enough energy to power 1,000 homes annually.
After looking at photos of the fields and renderings of the fields with panels, APA board member Art Lussi said he was surprised there were not public comments on the project.
“To me, there’s a tremendous impact on a pretty area of land,” Lussi said. “I’m certainly in support of the project. I think it’s fine. But I think we should maybe be a little more cognizant of the screening as we drive along by them.”
The project site is also within 5 miles of abandoned mines, now used by hibernating bats including the Northern Long-eared bat, a threatened species after massive die-offs from white-nose syndrome. The bats also roost in the trees in summertime, but Regan said the APA was not concerned with the number of trees proposed to be cut.
Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, suggested the APA board should take a closer look at the visual impacts and tree-cutting around solar projects. There was nowhere near the amount of discussion about the visual impacts of solar projects, Delaney said, compared to when the APA board discusses a cell tower, for example.
“I find that disturbing,” Delaney said. “I understand we need as a world, not just as a region or a country, we need these projects. But we should not look at it with a different eye.”
The board passed the Moriah solar project unanimously, with APA board members Ken Lynch and Dan Wilt absent.