By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park, traditionally a model of wilderness preservation, is getting a new badge of environmental notoriety as the site of New York’s first “build-ready” solar project.
Benson Mines, Inc., of St. Lawrence County, in the northwestern corner of the park, has entered into a land-lease agreement with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for a 20-megawatt solar project on approximately 130 acres. The project, once completed, will provide enough power for 4,500 homes, according to a news release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration. It could also create about 100 construction jobs.
The old iron-ore mine is a rare piece of land zoned “industrial use” in the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan Map, the zoning map for the 6-million-acre park. According to the Adirondack Park Agency’s development intensity guidelines, there is no limit to development in the industrial zones.
“The repurposing of this former mine in the Adirondack Park represents the innovative thinking that we need to put into action in order to compete in a green energy economy,” Cuomo said in a news release.
The agreement is part of the state’s new renewable energy siting law, the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, passed in the 2020-2021 state budget. The law is intended to streamline large renewable energy projects to help the state achieve its goals under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The state plans to get 70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The iron-ore mine closed in the 1970s, but Director Stuart Carlisle told the Adirondack Explorer in a phone interview that today the company has a sustainable timber harvesting program on more than 3,000 acres and also works with a contractor that sells aggregate, material often used for construction. The company currently employs three people.
NYSERDA identified the mine’s tailings pile as a “build-ready” project site, with the ability to support a 20- to 30-megawatt solar facility. Carlisle said the tailings pile is mostly crushed stone with a sand consistency, built up over about three decades of mining iron ore.
“We’re also looking at other productive uses for the land, and this build-ready program was obviously one that just synched up with the desire to give back to the community in terms of putting this land into productive use,” Carlisle said.
The plant would be a 20-year commitment, and Carlisle said it will be up to NYSERDA to find a solar developer for the site.
Doreen Harris, president and CEO of NYSERDA, called the land-lease agreement a “milestone” for the state that “provides an important opportunity for us to work with local officials and residents to build this project on underutilized land in a way that provides direct and long-lasting benefits to the surrounding community.”
The public will have an opportunity to get involved with the project, too, through an information session NYSERDA and the Town of Clifton plan to host on May 25. Details of the public information session were not immediately released, though NYSERDA has an email list-serv to sign up for updates here: https://www.nyserda.ny.gov/All-Programs/Programs/Clean-Energy-Standard/Landowners-and-Local-Governments/Build-Ready-Program/Connect-with-Us.
There are other logistics to work out regarding community host agreements, job training programs and payment-in-lieu-of-taxes possibilities. NYSERDA also plans to consider development for J&L Steel, a neighboring industrial site that was the site of an oil spill remediation. The state Department of Environmental Conservation said the proposed solar project is “south of several nearby State-led and overseen remediation projects.”
Tuesday’s news pleased one of the park’s leading environmental advocates, too. Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, praised the solar project.
“Instead of digging rock out of the ground, this project will pull sunlight out of the sky to ensure that local communities are benefiting from clean energy while protecting the Park’s lakes and streams from acid rain and other impacts of climate change,” Janeway said in a written statement.
Absent from the Cuomo administration’s press release were any quotes from the Adirondack Park Agency, the state organization responsible for developing long-range plans for both public and private land in the park. The APA recently approved two large solar projects in Ticonderoga in Essex County, at 5-megawatts each. During the APA’s April meeting, board members talked about the future of solar in the park and making an interactive map of where arrays were already located.
In an email to the Explorer, APA spokesman Keith McKeever said that “APA is coordinating with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on this project and anticipates the submission of a pre-application shortly. As the details of the proposed project are finalized, APA’s regulatory role will be determined and Agency staff will review as appropriate.”