St. Lawrence County solar project on former mine smaller than proposed
By Gwendolyn Craig
The state is going out to bid for its first “Build-Ready” renewable energy project, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Monday. It was supposed to be one of the largest solar facilities in the Adirondack Park, but its energy generation has been cut nearly in half, at least for now, after the state learned interconnection to utility transmission lines would be time consuming and costly.
“It’s an indication of what happens all the time with renewable energy projects because of grid constraints,” said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York. “It’s a symptom of a bigger problem.”
The project was originally for a 20-megawatt solar facility on the old tailings pile of Benson Mines in St. Lawrence County. It was to be about 62,000 panels on 111.5 acres in the Town of Clifton. It would generate enough power, state officials said, for about 4,500 homes. Now, the state is seeking a developer for a 12-megawatt solar project, which is expected to generate enough power for about 3,000 homes annually.
The project would contribute less than a quarter of a percent to the state’s solar goals of 6,000 megawatts by 2025. But it will help. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which is auctioning the project, said electricity generated from the St. Lawrence County facility will enter the wholesale market and will contribute directly to the state’s renewable energy goals.
Reynolds said she was happy to see the state moving forward on its “Build-Ready” program, a legal requirement enacted in 2020. “Faster would be better, but I don’t blame NYSERDA because they’re learning how complicated the development process is.”
James Hanley, who researches energy and environmental policy with Empire Center for Public Policy, said the leasing, permitting and grid connection studies are a multi-year process that everybody “wishes they could speed up.”
What is the program
The “Build-Ready” program prioritizes renewable energy projects on commercial, brownfield and former industrial sites in proximity to the electrical grid. NYSERDA does all the groundwork–permitting, lease agreements, decommissioning plans–and then creates a limited liability company. NYSERDA then auctions off the project to a developer, who then is responsible for the lease, permits and implementation.
The first step of the request for proposal process is due at 3 p.m. on Dec. 7, with the second part due at 3 p.m. on March 14. NYSERDA anticipates awarding the project in the second quarter of 2024, according to a news release. NYSERDA is hosting a webinar about the project and auction process at 11 a.m. on Oct. 13. Click here to register. Information on the RFP process can be found here.
Last year, NYSERDA successfully secured a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the state agency that oversees public and private development in the 6-million acre park, for the facility. The project permit was for 20 megawatts. Keith McKeever, communications director for the APA, said no permit amendment is needed since it is smaller than what was approved.
Why the energy reduction
A System Impact Study completed in July showed that in order to connect a 20-megawatt project to National Grid, there would be “non-local utility system upgrades” required. A NYSERDA spokesperson said the authority worked with the New York Independent System Operator, a nonprofit in charge of the state’s electrical grid, and realized such a wattage would “increase the project’s expected costs and development timeline. Therefore, NYSERDA reduced the project size to 12 MW in order to bring a de-risked project to the market in a more affordable and timely manner.” A de-risked project, the authority clarified, is one that is viable for an awardee to finance, construct and operate.
“Build-Ready sites typically have barriers that make development less attractive for private sector investment, including oversized costs of development, construction and utility interconnection,” the authority said. The program aims to leap those hurdles and auction off a turn-key project.
NYSERDA said it is not concerned that it has reduced the size of the project, and that 20 megawatts could still be in the mix. A clause in the request for proposals states applicants should include an expected megawatt amount if they believe the facility “to be economic above 12 MWac at any point” during the 20-year contract.
“The reality is, it costs money,” Hanley said. “You can’t just hook it up to your local power lines. They’re not designed to handle that kind of power.”
Hanley didn’t think the scale-down would happen very often in the future, “especially if they learn from this project. If it happens once or twice more they’ll get the message that we need to pay more attention to that before they announce the size of the project,” Hanley said.
The project received much fanfare in a release from Hochul’s office on Monday and was still called “one of the largest solar projects in the Adirondack Park.” The APA approved a 20-megawatt solar project in 2021 in the town of Ticonderoga. A 40-megawatt project proposed near Great Sacandaga Lake is also possible, proposed by Boralex Inc. and working its way toward an application with the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting.
When the APA approved the 20-megawatt St. Lawrence facility last year, most environmental organizations and local government officials were pleased. The former iron-ore mining site is a rare industrially zoned land use in the Adirondack Park. It used to be owned by J&L Steel Corp. and in the 1950s was considered “the largest open pit magnetite mine in the world and employed up to 1,000 people,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A portion of the land became a federal superfund site in 2013 due to a plume of more than 1 million gallons of N. 2 fuel oil seeping into Little River, a tributary of the Oswagatchie River. The solar project is not proposed on any of the superfund site.
“The Benson Mines solar project will transform otherwise underutilized land, supporting local industry while advancing New York’s clean energy transition,” Hochul said in a release.
NYSERDA is also working with the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency on a payment in lieu of taxes agreement and a Host Community Improvement Benefit Fund. The fund, according to the RFP, will start at $200,000 and will be paid by the awarded developer to the industrial development agency. The money will support “economic growth and inspire a range of entrepreneurial opportunities within the boundaries of the Clifton-Fine School District,” the RFP states.
Patrick Kelly, CEO of the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency, said the $200,000 fund could be expanded if the size of the solar project increased. He hoped to have worked out a payment in lieu of taxes agreement by the end of the year with NYSERDA and the taxing jurisdictions.
Larry Denesha, a St. Lawrence County legislator representing the town of Clifton, also said in a news release that it “has long been a dream of the community” to see the “defunct Benson Mines” property become functional again. He did not return the Explorer’s call for more information. Clifton Supervisor Charles Hooven could also not be reached for comment.