New state office to oversee permitting process
By Gwendolyn Craig
The largest solar project proposed in the Adirondack Park to date—40 megawatts near Great Sacandaga Lake–is of such a scale that it supplants the Adirondack Park Agency’s permitting process. Instead, permit jurisdiction falls under the relatively new Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES).
Boralex Inc., the solar developer proposing the Mayfield array, will be the first company to undertake this permit route in the Adirondack Park. It has not yet submitted a permit application, but once it does, many Adirondack Park constituents will be watching to see how the review unfolds.
Boralex spokesman Darren Suarez told the Explorer that the company was hesitant to propose a project in the Blue Line at first, considering the process is so new. ORES began operating in 2020 to help streamline renewable energy permits.
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James Townsend, senior advisor and counsel to the Adirondack Landowners Association, is not yet convinced that ORES could do the same job as the APA. The “proof is in the pudding,” he said. As an APA commissioner from 1999 to 2010, and later as APA counsel from 2013 to 2018, Townsend has a unique view from both staff and board side of the APA’s permitting process.
“I will defend the agency’s process over an unknown at the state process,” he said. “I think the important task for the state is the same lesson that the park agency learned over its 50 years—involving local people in a decision-making process gives much greater support to the outcome. They may not agree with the outcome, might not like the permit, but if they were part of the discussion, then they were less likely to object.”
How does the ORES process work? And how will these big solar projects contribute to the state’s climate goals?
Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, said the previous process for approving large-scale energy projects, be it renewable or fossil fuels, also included the possibility of overriding local rules and regulations. In that case, nothing is new.
The Explorer spoke with Reynolds, ORES, reviewed its regulations and received written answers from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to learn more.
ORES is a state office with 38 staff, who are dedicated solely to reviewing renewable energy applications of projects that are 25 megawatts or larger. Projects between 20 and 25 megawatts may also opt into the ORES process. The office was created through legislation based on the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act “to consolidate the environmental review.”
Once ORES receives a permit application, it has 60 days to determine if it’s complete. Once complete, the draft permit is released for public comment. ORES “must issue a final decision on the siting permit within one year of the date on which the application is deemed complete and within 6 months if the facility is proposed to be located on brownfield, former commercial or industrial, landfill, former power plant and abandoned or underutilized sites,” according to the ORES website.
ORES has permitted 11 applications so far. Four applications are complete, but under ORES review. Two projects have incomplete applications. Three projects have filed notices of intent. The Mayfield solar project is in its early stages, and not currently listed on the ORES website.
To view all of the applications that are in various ORES siting stages, go to: https://ores.ny.gov/permit-applications.
Prior to ORES, all 25-megawatt or larger energy projects (renewable or not) went through what’s called the Article 10 Review Process. “It was moving really, really slowly–for years,” Reynolds said. Now under ORES, renewable energy projects get their own review.
“It has been going somewhat faster,” Reynolds said. “A lot of good things are happening, but we won’t achieve it (the state’s climate goals) unless we get some more projects into construction.”
Separate from ORES projects, there are about 11 renewable energy projects in the state under construction that will deliver electricity to the grid. Reynolds said to keep up with the state’s climate law requiring 70% of the state’s electricity to be produced by renewable energy sources by 2030, there should be more like two dozen projects under construction each year.
If there are concerns or missing information in a permit, ORES will hold an adjudicatory hearing. That is a hearing before an administrative law judge, who will make a decision on the permit.
ORES has held at least one adjudicatory hearing so far. Another project is in the midst of a request for a hearing.
ORES regulations include several references to the Adirondack Park Agency, the state agency charged with long-range planning in the approximately 6-million-acre park and reviewing public and private development. APA will receive a copy of an ORES application “if such proposed facility is located within the Adirondack Park,” according to the regulations. The applicant must also provide ORES with proof that it has conferred with municipal planners and APA.
The APA is mentioned in ORES regulations mostly in the context of a renewable energy project’s impact on views. Maps must show “designated wilderness, forest preserve lands, scenic vistas specifically identified in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, NYSDEC lands, conservation easement lands,” and other land uses within a project’s study area. The regulations also reference a list of scenic vistas in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, but do not reference any of the land use and development density classifications.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is also to receive relevant applications and provide input on things like wetlands, water bodies, threatened and endangered species’ habitat, area wildlife and other environmental considerations.
Boralex is currently in the field studies phase and plans to submit its application to ORES in the second quarter of this year. Should the application be deemed complete, ORES would make a determination by the second quarter of 2024. Boralex estimates construction to begin mid-2024 with commercial operation by the end of 2025.
Energy producing facilities, including solar arrays, have what’s called a capacity factor, Reynolds said. A capacity factor, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is “the ratio of the electrical energy produced by a generating unit for the period of time considered to the electrical energy that could have been produced at continuous full power operation during the same period.” Nuclear energy generators, for example, can generally operate 24/7, giving them a higher capacity factor. Solar arrays, due to nighttime and weather, have a lower capacity factor.
Generally, NYSERDA said, solar projects have a capacity factor between 13% and 22%.
Boralex anticipates a 20% to 22% capacity factor over the course of the year, or roughly 4 megawatts for every hour throughout the year.
It’s a mix, said Reynolds. There is a requirement of 6 gigawatts of distributed solar by 2025. The 70% renewable energy by 2030 benchmark, however, references what energy is actually produced.
NYSERDA and the Department of Public Service require large-scale renewable energy projects to provide “rigorously modeled long-term, annual, hourly forecasts” when assessing a proposal, NYSERDA said.
“When measuring Climate Act goals, it is important to note that only actual generation, and not forecasted generation will be counted,” NYSERDA said.
Large-scale solar projects are tracked by the New York Independent System Operator and the New York State Generation Attribute Tracking System. Annual generation is also reported to the Energy Information Agency, according to NYSERDA. Projects under contract with NYSERDA also must meet certain performance requirements.
ORES regulations require a system reliability impact study “that shows expected flows on the system under normal, peak and emergency conditions.” ORES also requires an annual inspection program.
ORES requires applicants to have a decommissioning and site restoration plan. According to its regulations, it must include:
1. Safety and the removal of hazardous conditions;
2. Environmental impacts;
5. Potential future uses for the site;
6. Funding; and
ORES requires the applicant to include a 15% contingency cost for decommissioning and site restoration. A letter of credit or some other financial assurance will be held by the municipality hosting the project.
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