A new permitting process for large-scale wind and solar farms, with more state-level involvement, has been proposed to expedite renewable energy project development.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo added a 30-day amendment this week to his executive budget containing the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, creating a streamlined approval process to meet the new energy goals established last year and further combat climate change.
If approved, the new law will establish the Office of Renewable Energy Permitting to create and oversee a process that will take between six and 12 months to review applications for wind and solar projects capable of producing between 25 and 200 megawatts of power.
The act would take effect immediately after the final state budget is adopted in April providing it is not removed or altered by legislators in their budget review process.
Under the umbrella of Empire State Development, the permitting office would craft standard criteria to govern the sites used by energy companies for their wind turbines, solar arrays and transmission lines to minimize the impact on the environment and host communities according to the proposed law.
Project-specific conditions could be added to the core criteria on a case-by-case basis.
The state Energy Research and Development Authority, known as NYSERDA, and the departments of Environmental Conservation, Public Service and Agriculture and Markets are expected to work with the new siting office as needed, according to the amendment.
The new siting office will have decision-making authority in every aspect of the renewable energy project approval process under the proposed act and NYSERDA will be authorized to “undertake such actions it deems necessary or convenient” to help the siting and development of the projects.
A spokesperson for NYSERDA said general standards will still apply to the process despite that autonomy, and the office is accountable to the governor, the legislature and other agencies when applicable.
Currently, the siting process is led by the Public Service Commission and the state Department of Public Service through an in-depth, multi-step, multi-agency review known as Article 10, which has been in place since 2011.
While five projects have been granted the environmental certificate after completing the Article 10 process, including Invenergy’s Number Three Wind Farm in the towns of Harrisburg and Lowville in November, none have begun construction.
There are currently 50 solar and wind projects statewide in the Article 10 review queue with three wind projects, including the Deer River Wind Farm also in Lewis County, due to complete the process this year. Any and all of these projects would be allowed to switch to the expedited process if the companies so choose under the new law.
The NYSERDA spokesperson said that some Article 10 standards and regulations will continue into the new process.
Local involvement in the new siting process is otherwise minimized in the proposed law, although the NYSERDA spokesperson said the expectation is that the companies will still engage municipal leaders and host communities before and during project creation and application preparation. There is no requirement, however, for the companies to do so.
“No community in the state has been more supportive of green energy,” said Lewis County Manager Ryan Piche, “But we need to be conscious about siting decisions. We don’t want to be a community covered in solar panels, either. We need to balance the need to meet [the governor’s] goals with our own economy’s need for tourism, recreation and other development.”
Once a developer submits an application and the office determines the application is complete, a 60-day public comment period and a public hearing would follow under the Act. Municipalities hosting the project would also submit a notice to the office as to whether the project complies with their local laws during that period.
“General expressions of disagreement with or general opposition,” to a project during the public comment period will not be considered by the office in the permitting decision. Only comments that raise a ”substantive and significant issue” will be taken into account and could trigger a hearing, the document says.
Officials in the new process will also make a list of potential locations for pre-approved build-ready sites that would be put up for competitive bidding by developers, targeting brownfields, landfills, former industrial and commercial sites and other property unsuitable for most uses “to restore and protect the value of taxable land and leverage existing resources.” The use of these types of sites would expedite the siting process for the projects and could come with incentives.
“The vacant sites make sense but the outlying area should have a say,” said James Der, town of Denmark supervisor in Lewis County. “Maybe we don’t want them [turbines or arrays] there, maybe we want them somewhere else.”
Denmark already hosts EDF Renewable’s Copenhagen Wind Farm and a community solar project, with other renewable projects on the horizon.
An economic incentive for energy companies that has been key to the local economic impact of large wind and solar farms has been the payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs.
These payments made to municipalities and school districts instead of straight property taxes are currently negotiated by county, town, village and school district officials in project areas, often with assistance from county-level industrial development agencies.
This proposed law, however, would require municipalities to consult with NYSERDA when determining PILOT payments. Under the new law, NYSERDA will bring standardization and a level playing field for assessing the value of wind and solar farms, the authority’s spokesperson said, in part to ensure that some municipal officials don’t feel they are getting a worse deal than others.
While NYSERDA will set the standard for PILOTs, local negotiations beyond that amount will still be possible, according to the spokesperson.
Jefferson County Legislature Chairman Scott Gray believes, however, that by requiring consultation with NYSERDA, the proposed legislation further removes local officials from the process.
“They’re going to take all of the leverage of negotiating PILOTs from us,” he said, adding that the act “totally obliterates home rule.”
Although most specifics of the permitting process regulations will be determined by the new office, the legislation does provide for the creation of a fund bankrolled by project owners required to decrease their project’s impact on endangered species and their habitats as a condition to their siting permit. To put the money to work, the Public Service Commissioner will be empowered by the act to contract specialized services.
There is no similar fund created for wetland mitigation in the proposed law.
Among the benefits outlined for communities hosting the large renewable energy projects is the creation of a program that will give residents a discount or credit on their utility bills. However, there is no minimum amount or percentage range indicated as to what those savings could be and therefore how much benefit the discount would actually provide people.
There is also the possibility, according to the law’s text, that instead of a utility discount, a host community would receive an undefined “compensatory or environmental benefit.”
Another proposed benefit for some host communities is a workforce training program to “support renewable energy development” in the areas of build-ready sites.
There is no requirement for renewable energy companies to provide permanent jobs in the specific “disadvantaged communities” where the training would take place indicated in the Act. Very few local permanent jobs have been created by most renewable energy projects in the area, and those created often high-level requirements.
The extensive workforce opportunity created by energy projects often cited by the governor is viewed from a state-wide lens, not with regard to opportunities created in project areas, according to the NYSERDA representative.
A statewide power grid study would also be put into action under this law, to identify potential upgrades to — or replacement of — power distribution and transmission infrastructure and the state’s bulk electric transmission grid.
The study will look at many issues surrounding the current systems’ abilities to handle increased energy production by the renewable projects, including measures of reliability, safety, and the cost-effectiveness of upgrades as well as topics identified by the new siting office.
After the study is complete, the Public Service Commission will create a capital plan for distribution and local transmission improvements. A separate plan will be made to address the bulk transmission system’s needs.
The state power authority and NYSERDA are “authorized” to help cover the cost for the study.
Some local leaders, including Mr. Gray and Mr. Der, said they would have preferred to have changes made to the Article 10 process to make it more efficient.
“I have been impressed somewhat with how thorough Article 10 is. They don’t let the developers get away with much,” Mr. Der said.
Three emergency rule changes made to the Article 10 process at the same time Number Three Wind Farm was granted a rehearing of a number of issues earlier this month expedited the amount of time it would take for the wind company to begin construction.
“Before the governor’s initial comments in the State of the State address, we didn’t know anything was coming,” said Margueritte Wells, project manager for Number Three. “We’re cautiously optimistic but we’re not sure what it will mean for our project going forward.”
Ms. Wells said that starting over again with the new process is not likely to take less time than to continue with Article 10 with the rule changes that already addressed timing concerns for project construction.
Gov. Cuomo’s updated green energy goals that became law on Jan. 1, were the impetus for the new siting law. The goals include that 70 percent of the state’s energy production be from renewable sources by 2030, as opposed to the previous goal of 50 percent, with 100 percent from renewables by 2040.
“New York State has risen to the occasion [created by climate change] by enacting the strongest laws in the nation to protect and preserve our environment,” Gov. Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “This legislation will help achieve a more sustainable future, invigorating the green economy and reaffirming New York’s position as a market leader with a revamped process for building and delivering renewable energy projects faster.”
For the many rural communities that host the large energy projects, however, having a say in how their communities and lives are impacted by the projects is vital.
“If Manhattan, Westchester, Nassau, Erie, Suffolk and other urban areas are net takers, then it’s up to other counties to be net producers,” Mr. Piche said, “But we have to be conscious of the character of our community along with the best interest of the state goals. That’s why we need to be involved and control our own destiny.”
While there is no official public comment session at this time, the NYSERDA spokesperson said people can make their voices heard on the proposed siting process by contacting their state senators and assembly representatives directly.
To read the ammendment’s full text, go to https://www.budget.ny.gov/pubs/archive/fy21/exec/30day/ted-artvii-newpart-jjj.pdf.