Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of Adirondack Explorer. Click here to subscribe.
By Gwendolyn Craig
New York’s carbon-slashing ambitions are skyscraper tall, and the forested park that covers one-fifth of the state is set to help achieve them.
The Adirondack Park’s trees, solar installations, dams and wind turbines all have roles in meeting the demands of a climate-protection law that the state touts as the nation’s most aggressive. But the environmental ideals of carbon-free energy and wildland preservation sometimes compete, and that tension will shape the park’s contributions over time.
As a substantial community solar project takes shape at the edge of Saranac Lake, one thing is certain: Renewable energy is a growing force in the Adirondacks. Developers and locals are finding ways to go green despite the extra layer of zoning protections on public and private lands in the park.
“We have the right needle in the haystack,” said Mike Roach, energy developer for RER Energy Group at the Saranac Lake solar project. “Everything came together.”
In 2019, New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The law requires carbon-free electricity production in the state by 2040. It also requires an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Legislators passed the law after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published an alarming report that said if global warming isn’t limited to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, there will be dire consequences. It urged developed countries to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. It’s not going to be an easy feat in New York or anywhere else.
The power mix
In 2018, just 29% of the state’s electricitygeneration came from renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
About one-third of the state’s power comes from nuclear power plants, 2018 data show. Indian Point, one of four nuclear power plants in the state, is slated to close in 2021. It meets about 12% of the state’s energy needs—power that New York will have to replace with clean sources to meet its climate mandates.
Upstate New York has a cleaner electric grid than the state overall. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the region’s fuel mix—two-thirds from hydro and nuclear sources—produces less than a third of the national average of carbon emissions per megawatt-hour.
How does your area gets its power? Go to www.epa.gov/energy/power-profiler#/.
The Adirondack Park is a unique corner of the state. About 2.6 million acres are in the state’s forest preserve, protected from development under the state constitution’s “forever wild” clause. The public-private park is also protected by the Adirondack Park Agency, which reviews development projects and upholds rules and regulations around wetlands and rivers.
Finding an open spot for a large solar array is a challenge, but Roach and his team were successful. The panels are going up in a 22- acre open field across State Route 86 from Lake Colby. The site is owned by Lee Keet, a philanthropist.
The Explorer is spending this week on renewable/clean energy issues, highlighting recent Explorer stories. Here’s the schedule:
- Monday: Key takeaways from New York State’s groundbreaking climate legislation
- Tuesday: Our live event and discussion
- Wednesday: Recent park projects
- Thursday: Renewables and the APA
- Friday: Wood/biomass
To keep up to date on this and other Adirondack policy issues, sign up for Gwendolyn Craig’s weekly e-mail newsletter Adirondack Report.
North Country sunshine
The 2-megawatt project plans to serve 250 residents in the North Country, said Conrad Karsten, project developer for Sunvestment Energy Group.
Through the website saranaclakesolar.com, the companies have collected subscribers since
May, with plans for the system to go live by October or November. The solar arrays will produce about 2.4 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy a year, according to the project’s website.
It’s free to become a subscriber, and anyone with a National Grid account is eligible. Roach said they’re hoping “Adirondack folks reap these benefits.” The project is also receiving assistance from NY-Sun, a solar initiative that is part of the state’s Energy Research and Development Authority.
The project was a few years in the making, with plenty of hoops to jump through. It took a willing property owner with land under the proper classification for development to get the job done, and it also took the right infrastructure to connect to National Grid.
“I know development is complicated,” Roach said. “There are a couple of different agencies,
authorities having jurisdiction that you have to contend with developing anything in the Adirondacks, so we managed to get a handle on that. To my understanding, that was kind of surprising to a lot of other interested parties and developers, who hadn’t figured out how to do that.”
Keith McKeever, spokesperson for the APA, said the agency created a new “commercial solar
permit to streamline review of new commercial solar projects,” and documents show that a few others could be coming down the pike.
Two projects are proposed in Ticonderoga and one in Moriah. One, led by a company called SolarPark Energy, involves a 36-acre site in Ticonderoga that would need a new access road, fencing and utility connections. The APA’s records show the project was issued a notice of incomplete permit application in April. The other two are in preliminary application
phases, records show.
Roach said he also hopes to build more solar capacity in the Adirondack Park and just outside of it.
Smaller-scale solar projects on private homes and farms are found throughout the park, too.
Asgaard Farm and Dairy in Au Sable Forks has two solar installations that provide about 85% of its electricity. It’s the farm’s mission, owner David Brunner said, to be carbon-neutral by 2025.
To do that, he’s also looking at harnessing the wind.
North Country wind
The APA has a policy for cell towers “and other tall structures,” which means anything over 40 feet. The policy hasn’t been updated since 2002, but it’s something the APA board planned to tackle this year.
Considering many of the mountaintops in the Adirondacks are owned by the state and can’t be developed, and considering the APA regulations, something like a 300-foot windmill is a tough sell.
Wind farm proposals on the outskirts of the Adirondacks have met with plenty of community pushback, too. The company Avangrid had plans around 2018 to build a 100-megawatt wind farm in Hopkinton and Parishville in St. Lawrence County.
Residents formed a group called Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation. Its website focuses on wildlife impacts of wind power, safety concerns and property devaluation. Avangrid pulled its proposal. The company did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would try again in light of the new climate legislation.
Inside the park, Brunner and others are looking at ways to keep wind small but workable.
Brunner is partnering with Clarkson University on a new kind of wind turbine designed specifically for the park’s guidelines. Professor Ken Visser and his students have created a ducted wind turbine, which looks a bit like a windmill inside a tube. A prototype is up and running on campus in Potsdam, and is available to view on a livestream online.
The turbine produces enough electricity to power about half the energy needs of a typical home in the United States, Visser said. The problem: It’s expensive. The initial capital costs for a turbine that powers an average home would be around $80,000. He’s hoping to get that under $20,000.
This year, Visser has plans to put up 10 turbines in the North Country, including one at Asgaard Farm. Brunner is excited to see how it does. “If it works as expected, it would be a game
changer,” Brunner said.
Subsidies are rolling in for solar and wind projects across the state, but water has long produced big power supplies in the region. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said New York “produced more hydroelectric power than any other state east of the Rocky Mountains and was the third-largest producer of hydroelectricity in the nation” as of 2018.
There are dozens of hydropower dams in the Adirondacks, some now out of commission because of dropping energy prices. Local operators are hoping for more state support to survive.
On a Monday morning in July, Saranac Lake Village Manager John Sweeney stood over the dam at Lake Flower. Crews worked in and out of the old Paul Smith’s Electric Light and Power
and Railroad Co. building on River Street. Lake Flower dam water flows underneath the building, churning a hydro unit inside.
It was offline at the time. Sweeney was overseeing an upgrade planned for nearly a decade to switch the system to remote net metering. Such a system will allow the village to apply credits from its power production to other village accounts without paying National Grid’s service and delivery fees, or to keep a portion as a rolling credit for later energy demands.
“It’s about 5 ½ times greater (savings) to the village, so that’s why we’re doing all these upgrades,”
Sweeney said. “It’s taken us 10 years, but we’re getting there.”
It is one of the biggest upgrades to a dam that has been in existence since 1892, originally built for a logging operation.
While the creation of dams and hydropower stations around the Adirondacks may not have had the most environmentally friendly origins, operators have turned them into electricity producers.
Emmett Smith, founder of the company Northern Power and Light, is involved in operation
of hydropower plants, as well as energy policy and power distribution. His family owns two hydropower plants, including one in the Adirondack Park at St. Regis Falls.
That dam, perched on the St. Regis River, measures 110 feet across, 24 feet wide and 18 feet tall. Many dams are built of concrete, but this one is built from 600 logs of local tamarack and hemlock trees, in a kind of intricate latticework securing 800 tons of local stone.
Smith is a staunch advocate for hydropower production and wants the state to do more to support it.
“It’s an enormous existing contribution,” Smith said. “So far, we don’t receive any kind of compensation for the renewable attribute of that.”
A spokesperson for the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority did not answer requests for comment about what the state might be doing to support hydropower projects. A spokesperson did tout the state’s “aggressive” climate and clean energy goals in a statement to the Adirondack Explorer, adding that it was “working with local communities and industry stakeholders in the Adirondacks.”
Lack of state support is causing larger hydropower operators, like Brookfield Renewable Partners, to sell power to other states that pay more. But those energy credits don’t count then toward the state’s emissions goals. Selling power out of state is also not feasible for smaller hydro operators. It requires major infrastructure that mom-and-pop dams don’t have.
That’s partially why Smith created Northern Power and Light, to allow community members to purchase power directly from small hydro dams. He compares it to a community-supported agriculture model.
“Our pitch to customers is the idea that you’re keeping your dollar local,” Smith said. “Not only are you choosing an energy source that is green and sustainable, you’re investing in your own community and the infrastructure that you rely on.”
The hydropower station at St. Regis Falls, for example, can produce 700 kilowatts an hour and serves 150 customers in the area. Smith has an even bigger project in Potsdam,
a 3.1-megawatt facility that will need 1,000 customers.
“It works the same as rooftop solar, in essence,” Smith said. “We allocate a percentage of the generation to each customer’s account, and National Grid turns that into a dollar credit.”
Smith is hoping the model will catch on and hydropower can boom in the Adirondacks once again.
“I would like the Adirondacks to feel proud of its existing contributions,” he said. “It’s not to say that there are not some hydros and some dams that could be removed, or shouldn’t be there. I think that’s partly for us to decide, as an Adirondack community, which of these resources we want.”
Natural carbon capture
Rob Davies is the state forester and DEC’s director of lands and forests.
From his perch, trees are important, and so is keeping forests as forests. That makes the Adirondack Park a special place in the state’s climate change work. The DEC said keeping forests intact in the Adirondacks “is an important mitigation strategy for New York to meet the net emission goals for 2050.”
It’s not clear exactly how much carbon the Adirondacks’ forestlands store, but across the state, forests trap about 25.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s helpful, considering New York produces around 160 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. There are about 19 million acres of forest in the state, but a whopping 14 million acres are privately owned. Like hydropower plant operators in New York, private forestland owners don’t get a lot of incentives from the state.
Charlie Canham, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, said many landowners don’t own enough property to be eligible for the forest tax credits that the state does offer. New York’s forest tax law requires property owners to have 50 acres or more, and tax exemptions vary based on a forester’s assessment of how the land can be managed.
“I think the small family forest owners are the heroes in all of this,” Canham said. “There has
been a lot of talk, and there have been attempts to revise the forest tax law in New York to both reward family forest owners for the public good they’re providing by protecting their forests and managing them, and to help them cover the costs of protecting the land.”
Davies agreed that more needs to be done with private landowners. Only about 1 million acres of privately owned land is part of the state’s forest tax law program, he said.
“That’s not enough,” Davies said. “We’ve got to reach many more landowners if we’re going to move the dial.”
It’s something the state and legislators haven’t quite figured out yet. Still, the approximately 3 million acres of forest preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills are guaranteed protected from development, and that gives Davies some hope.
“You can’t look into a crystal ball and see into the future, but when it comes to the Adirondacks and Catskill forest preserves, we kind of can,” he said.