Solar developers field questions during forum

The Riverside solar farm site will straddle the town borders of Lyme and Brownville. The site boundaries are indicated by the solid black line in this draft.

CHAUMONT — Town residents had a lot of questions for the developers of a planned solar power facility to be built between the towns of Lyme and Brownville.

At a community engagement forum held virtually Tuesday night, 41 area residents submitted nearly 60 questions to the project’s staff on issues ranging from where the produced power will go to what will happen when the facility is taken down at the end of its life.

National energy company AES is currently moving through a siting process to build the facility, named the Riverside Solar project, which it anticipates will be able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 133,000 metric tons per year.

The developers opened the meeting with a 45-minute presentation in which they discussed the general points of the development plan. The facility will take up roughly 1,000 acres of land on either side of Route 12E, to the east of Chaumont.

Some attendees at the meeting said they were concerned with the location of the development. The Chaumont Barrens Nature Preserve, which is one of the last grasslands of its kind in the country, is only a few miles north of the planned solar facility.

Samantha Kranes, an AES staffer, said the permitting process required the company identify special environmental conditions in a 5-mile radius of the project. The barrens were identified as a specific area of concern, and Ms. Kranes said AES will be speaking with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as the Office of Renewable Energy Siting, to understand what, if anything, must be done to protect the barrens, although no development is planned to touch the preserve.

“We will not be impacting that area directly,” she said.

There are a number of wetlands identified within the facility boundaries, but according to AES officials, they are not required to space their panels away from those wetlands as they are not protected. Despite there being no requirement to avoid any wetlands around the facility, AES has established a minimum setback of 25 feet for any wetlands identified on the map.

The project, which was first announced last year by National Grid and its subsidiary Geronimo, has been in the planning phase since 2019. National Grid then sold all of its New York state renewable energy projects to sPower, a company that was recently purchased by AES.

The AES team said they plan to finish the permitting process by spring 2021, and begin construction at the end of 2022.

John O’Driscoll, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 910, asked the AES team if they plan to pay local electricians to build the facility.

“John and I have talked on numerous occasions,” said Eric Will, senior developer at AES. “I applaud the efforts that IBEW is making to train as many people as possible. Our marching orders to our contractors will be to hire as much local labor as they possibly can.”

Expected to be completed by the end of 2023, AES anticipates the facility will be able to produce enough electricity to power 22,000 homes.

A community member asked if those 22,000 homes will be in the local area, or if the power will be sold to another region.

Brett Hastings, senior manager of development for AES, said any power generated by the facility in Lyme will feed into homes nearby after it’s put into the grid on the nearby high-voltage line.

“Electricity takes the path of least resistance,” he said. “We’ll be injecting our power at the Lyme tap ... that will go to another substation, which will go into little distribution substations, and it will be transformed down into the local neighborhoods.”

He noted that if local demand is too low, the electricity will travel further through the grid until it is used.

Another community resident asked if the solar project will benefit the community in any other ways. Mr. Hastings explained that part of the state’s requirements for AES will also be giving energy credits to residential electricity customers in Lyme and Brownville as a direct benefit to the community for hosting the project. Over 10 years, the company will distribute $50,000 of energy credits per year, for a total of $500,000, to local residents, which will be automatically reflected on their energy bills.

The facility is expected to be able to produce up to 100 megawatts of solar energy in the best conditions, but AES staffers said many projects typically produce less than their highest rating due to transmission losses and other factors.

The AES team said the planned site in Lyme and Brownville is overall a very good place to install a solar facility because there are nearby landowners willing to lease their land to the project, a nearby high-voltage line to feed the power into and the weather is, all things considered, relatively good for solar power generation.

“This isn’t Arizona, but this is a very profitable area as far as solar development,” said Michael Farrell, senior development manager for AES.

Besides the 100 megawatts of live power the facility will be able to generate from its panels, the facility will also host a 20-megawatt lithium-ion battery bank. Those batteries will be able to feed power into the grid when the panels aren’t producing large amounts of energy but demand still requires additional power.

Once the facility reaches its end of life, Mr. Hastings said AES will be responsible for the removal and recycling of the photovoltaic panels. He said, as part of the permitting process, AES is required to come up with a plan to return the site to its natural state once the solar facility is no longer operable. Those plans include soil, water table, wetland and stream, as well as vegetation remediation plans.

Any disturbed areas will have to be restored to their original grade and conditions, and permanent vegetation that fits with the character of the surrounding land must be replanted before a renewable energy facility can be deemed fully decommissioned, according to state law.

AES staff members said they were pleased with the amount of community feedback at Tuesday’s meeting, and said while they’ve had to adapt to virtual meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, they hope to meet with the community in person as well when possible.

“We look forward to engaging with you all in person when it is safe to do so,” said Neely Kelley, a staffer in charge of community relations with AES.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the total amount of energy credits being given to Lyme and Brownville residents for the construction of the Riverside solar facility. The company will distribute $50,000 of energy credits per year, for a total of $500,000, to local residents, which will be automatically reflected on their energy bills.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

I write about north country politics, Jefferson County and the northern shoreline towns of Lyme, Cape Vincent, Clayton and Alexandria Bay

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