Huge solar farm plans in Syracuse area show the future’s bright. So what’s the holdup? –

Tully, N.Y. – On roughly 100 acres of farmland near the village of Tully, a Boston company this summer plans to start construction of three solar farms that will sell electricity to households and small businesses.

Each of the three solar farms will be twice as large as the biggest solar farms built to date in Onondaga County. Each will produce up to 5 megawatts.

Together they will increase the county’s solar capacity by nearly 50%, producing enough power each year to cover the usage of about 2,200 average homes.

It’s the biggest local solar development to date. But it’s just a small step toward what developers and state energy officials hope to build in Central New York.

There are at least 29 large solar projects on the drawing board in Onondaga County alone, totaling 190 megawatts, according to records of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Each has been promised financial subsidies from NYSERDA.

Large-scale solar power is expected to play a big role in New York’s efforts to fight climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

Statewide, there’s a massive pipeline of proposed solar projects subsidized with state money, some of which would dwarf the new solar farms coming to Tully.

A Florida company is seeking approval for a 200-megawatt solar farm in the northern Cayuga County town of Conquest. Meanwhile, a Texas company plans to build a 200-megawatt solar farm in the southern part of the county.

The largest solar farm proposed thus far in New York is a 500-megawatt project in Genesee County that would lease land from 31 property owners across seven square miles.

So far that huge pipeline of solar projects has yielded just a trickle of projects that actually get built each year. Lining up financing and regulatory approval for a large solar farm is typically a multi-year process at best.

“It’s definitely a long process,’’ said Mike Beckner, of SunEast Development. His company has 19 large solar projects planned across the state, including a 20-megawatt farm in Clay.

Often the longest wait for large-scale solar farms – which are essentially new power plants — is for authorization to connect to the electric grid. That’s usually a three-year process requiring multiple studies, Beckner said.

ClearPath Energy, the company developing the new solar farms in Tully, plans to build them during the summer and fall of this year, said Greg Hering, a company founder. He said he hopes to connect the projects to the state power grid “as soon as possible,” potentially by the end of the year.

“Solar is a challenging process to build, but firms can get it done,’’ Hering said. “It takes forever.”

Hering said his biggest concern now is the seven-fold increase in ocean shipping costs stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. Many solar panels are produced in Asia.

New York’s optimistic goals

ClearPath’s projects in Tully are known as community solar projects. ClearPath will market energy from the solar farms direct to residential or small commercial customers, who will get a credit on their National Grid bill for the energy they buy from ClearPath.

Larger solar projects – usually 20 megawatts or more — are known as utility-scale solar farms. They sell power into the wholesale market, and most have 20-year contracts with NYSERDA that provide extra revenue for each megawatt-hour of production.

To combat climate change, New York state has set aggressive renewable energy goals. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, signed into law in 2019, requires a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. To accomplish that, state officials have set a target of 70% of the state’s energy to be produced from renewable resources by 2030. Last year, renewable energy accounted for just 27%.

Solar will play a major role. State energy officials are planning to bring on 6,000 megawatts of new solar capacity in the next four years.

On Earth Day this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited a 20-megawatt solar farm under construction in Washington County to proclaim that “more than 20′’ large-scale wind or solar projects would start construction this year. Asked for details, NYSERDA officials provided a list of 10 wind projects and 20 solar farms that would be started or completed this year.

But NYSERDA’s list was overly optimistic. Of the three solar projects included in Central New York, only one will be under construction this year.

Janis Solar, a 20-megawatt project in southern Cortland County owned by Goldman Sachs Renewable Power Group, is currently being built in the town of Willet, said town supervisor Alvin Doty Jr.

Two other 20-megawatt projects on NYSERDA’s list – Sky High Solar in Tully and Dog Corners Solar in Cayuga County – are at least a year away from construction, company officials said.

Boralex, a Canadian company that owns the Sky High project, hasn’t even submitted its application for a permit to the Tully town board yet, said Darren Suarez, speaking for Boralex. Approval from a town board usually takes at least a year.

If Boralex can get its Tully project built, the company will benefit from state subsidies promised three years ago to a previous project owner. NYSERDA in 2018 awarded a contract to Sky High Solar worth up to $22.4 million over 20 years, according to NYSERDA records.

‘It’ll be here soon’

The largest solar farms — projects of 25 megawatts or more — must go through a siting process overseen by the state rather than the local municipality. It typically takes companies at least three years to meet all the requirements, said Anne Reynolds, executive director of Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a renewable industry group.

In some areas, large solar projects meet with resistance from local residents, which can sometimes slow down the permit process. Many residents of the town of Willet, for example, opposed the Janis project, said Doty, the town supervisor.

The most common complaint against the project, which will cover about 120 acres of farmland, was that it will change the look of the rural landscape, Doty said. Despite the resistance, the project met local zoning requirements and was approved, he said.

ClearPath Energy’s projects in Tully have not encountered much dissent, said John Masters, the town supervisor. During a public hearing last year, several residents asked questions about the projects but none expressed opposition, according to the minutes.

That is likely because ClearPath is a small firm that worked with local residents while planning the solar farms, said Mark Drumm, who is leasing one of his fields to the developer.

Drumm said he was contacted by “an onslaught” of developers who wanted to build solar arrays on land he owns near Interstate 81. But that area is too visible to traffic and a solar farm could have been an eyesore, Drumm said. He preferred to lease out a parcel that is up a hill and mostly out of sight.

ClearPath agreed with Drumm’s idea.

“They’re the only one that listened to me,’’ Drumm said.

Drumm declined to say how much solar developers are paying to lease property but said the prices are attractive.

“It’s a lot for farmland,’’ he said. “It’s desirable, certainly more than you can ever get (otherwise) for farmland.”

Using money collected from utility ratepayers, NYSERDA has awarded subsidy contracts to dozens of large-scale solar projects in recent years. Most of those projects are wending their way through regulatory and grid-connection approvals, and some have reached the finish line.

Reynolds, of the Alliance for Clean Energy, said this year may bring a burst of solar construction around the state.

“I think this is the summer of solar,’’ she said. “Then again, I always hope that.”

If not this year, then soon, said Beckner, of SunEast Development.

“It’ll be here soon, and it’s all going to be happening at once, because everybody’s kind of on the same timeline,’’ Beckner said. “You’re about to see all the projects making it through.’’

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June 7, 2021 susan ward