Sunshine is on the path to becoming big business in the Mohawk Valley.
As part of his many-day 2021 State of the State presentation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined the broad strokes of an ambitious green energy plan for New York that would make renewable energy “a new economic engine that is future-oriented, that is essential to our survival, and that has potential to benefit generations to come.”
Among the specific projects mentioned by Cuomo was the proposed massive, 250-megawatt Mill Point Solar Project in the town of Glen.
“That’s exciting for us,” said Eddie Barry, an executive at ConnectGen, LLC, which is developing the Mill Point project, “and a good confirmation that we are developing a project in an area that it’s needed.”
Mill Point, which remains in the early phases of development, is one of a number of large-scale solar farms in various stages of progress in Montgomery County. Between Mill Point’s proposed 250-megawatt farm, the 90.5-megawatt Mohawk Solar project that in November became the first large-scale solar project to be granted a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need under Article 10 by the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment, and the High River Energy Center project that is currently seeking approval for the same certificate from the Siting Board, Montgomery County is in the process of becoming one of the state’s hubs for large-scale solar energy projects.
With East Point Energy Center in the town of Sharon in Schoharie County also receiving its Article 10 certificate from the Siting Board earlier this month, it’s become clear that the wider Mohawk Valley is seen by energy companies as fertile ground to develop these projects.
Officials from multiple energy companies said conditions in the region are ideal for large-scale solar projects as there’s a sizable amount of flat, previously worked land where solar installation wouldn’t disturb the local ecosystem and a proximity to electric transmission lines with the capacity to take on the new connection.
That transmission capacity will be getting a boost: Cuomo announced Thursday that the state Public Service Commission approved a 93-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line that runs from Oneida County to Albany County.
The nearly $854 million project, named the Marcy to New Scotland Upgrade Project, is designed to speed the flow of clean electricity to markets downstate. The route of the line through Montgomery County is within the electric transmission rights of way in parts of Minden, Canajoharie, Glen and Florida — all sites targeted for large-scale solar projects.
In his time as Montgomery County executive, Matt Ossenfort has seen plenty of solar energy companies pitch communities within the county on potential projects of varying scope.
“We’ve seen projects that made sense, and others that haven’t,” Ossenfort said. “We’ve seen large projects, we’ve seen small projects. Really having the local community drive that process is important. There’s certainly been a lot of interest, and where it can work and where it makes sense, there can be some real benefits.”
The tide certainly seems to be shifting toward an economy fueled by renewable energy sources.
Cuomo’s green energy initiative includes a $26 billion public-private partnership to build nearly 100 projects, with the goal to build enough green power-generating equipment to supply the state’s needs.
On the national level, one of President Joe Biden’s first actions Wednesday was an executive order to re-enter the U.S. into the Paris Climate Agreement, which sets targets for each country that has signed onto the agreement for reductions in greenhouse gas production.
“I just think the time is right for renewable energy right now,” said Bryan Garner, communications director for NextEra Energy, the company behind the development of both East Point and High River. “First off, it’s the right thing to do, to build clean energy projects like this. Secondly, it’s the economic thing to do. The cost of solar energy is lower than it has ever been, and it’s going to continue to go down, which results in lower electric prices. It also stimulates great economic development locally.”
For some of these projects, the end is closer in sight. For others, the road is only just beginning.
When East Point Energy Center received its Article 10 certificate earlier this month, it marked a major benchmark in a process that started nearly four years ago.
“Going through the Article 10 process is a long, complicated road that started back in 2017 for this project,” said project director Kris Scornavacca. “We’re pleased with the outcome, but there’s still quite a bit of a road ahead.”
That road for East Point is the compliance filing process, where all of the construction, engineering and environmental consideration plans must be submitted to state agencies to show that the project can comply with the conditions of the project’s Article 10 certificate.
Those submissions go through a public comment period and a review from state agencies before permission to begin construction is granted.
“You jump through all those hoops,” Scornavacca said, “and if you get through them and get approval, you can go to the next step, which is to start construction.”
Mohawk Solar, developed by Avangrid Renewables, is a couple months farther along in the process, as in November the project was the first large-scale solar effort to be granted the Article 10 certificate.
However, how long the process takes to move from the certificate to the compliance process to the start of construction for these projects remains unknown.
“We’re dealing with a new state agency that technically is not receiving applications yet,” he said, “so there’s some mystery there that will be revealed in time.”
As the first batch of projects of their size to go through the process, East Point and Mohawk Solar are, strangely, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the process.
Just getting to this point has been a journey, one that’s required cooperation with local and state government agencies, the landowners from whom the companies are leasing the land the solar projects will be constructed on and the local community.
In developing East Point, Scornavacca said the project’s site plan hit a snag when local residents saw that some of the solar panels would be constructed near and be visible from the Route 20 scenic byway.
After a feedback process, Scornavacca’s team crafted a new plan that would move those panels to a site “miles away” from the scenic byway.
“We’re proud of that,” he said. That was based on a lot of feedback from the local community and the town, the residents.”
Mohawk Solar’s development found similarly willing partners in the Minden and Canajoharie communities.
“The one in Canajoharie is a perfect example where the community, all municipalities and school districts came together and were in support of it, and it moved forward,” Ossenfort said. “That was one of the bigger ones to really get that far in the process, throughout the state.”
For other projects in the area, development has been much less harmonious.
The state Department of Public Service’s Article 10 case file for High River Energy Center shows 452 officially filed documents dating back to the application for the project in the town of Florida in September 2017.
Alongside those are 39 public comments from area residents dated between August 2018 and November 2020 that detail a conflict between those supporting the project’s construction — primarily landowners who have committed to leasing property for the solar farm — and those in opposition — most of whom cite the project’s disruption of the area’s scenic nature.
“The project in the town of Florida versus the project in Canajoharie have certainly been two very different journeys,” Ossenfort said.
In a comment dated Nov. 6, William Martuscello said that he and his wife purchased their home near the proposed site nine years ago, largely due to the view.
At that time, he wrote, there were no solar projects in development in the area, and likened the construction to “legalized rape” of the land.
“Protecting the environment is a noble ambition, but this is not protecting the environment, this is total desecration of the land,” Martuscello wrote. “I can not comprehend how our elected officials think this is good for the people of New York.”
Karen Slezak, of Bulls Head Road, submitted a comment Oct. 28 sharing similar concerns about High River’s impact on the valley.
“While I do not object to the concept of solar energy,” Slezak’s comment reads, “I do object to replacing miles and miles of scenic views of the Mohawk River Valley and distant Adirondack Mountains with massive expanses of industrial black solar panels. Such mega solar arrays will forever mar the sight of this scenic landscape. It is the sheer size and scope of this huge intrusion that is so upsetting.”
For those in support, the solar project represents economic opportunity.
Emily Opalka, of Hutchison Farm, wrote on Nov. 3 that her family’s farm — which has operated since 1898 and produces hay, corn and soybeans in addition to raising about 50 cattle — was approached for the project several years ago and that leasing a portion of the land to NextEra Energy is a way for landowners to keep ownership of their farms while keeping them financially viable.
“Hutchison Farm will continue, regardless of whether the High River Energy Center, LLC is approved,” Opalka wrote. “However, we hope that by partnering with Next Era and harvesting sunlight, we will be able to update and repair our barns, expand and improve our farm land, open a custom butchering shop and most importantly, provide a more stable future for generations to come.”
Garner, NextEra’s director of communications, is hopeful the company will be able to find a similar arrangement with the community in the town of Florida as it did in Schoharie County, allowing the project to become an economic driver for the area.
“We’re confident that at the end of that process,” Garner said, “we’re going to have a project that everybody can be proud of, that reflects everybody’s interests.
“This is good jobs, additional revenue for the community that really comes at a key time — especially coming on the heels of a pandemic. I think every community could use a little economic boost, right?”
For Mill Point Solar in the town of Glen, all that is yet to come.
Barry, the ConnectGen executive, said the company made its first presentation to the Town Board earlier this month and has been in communication with Town Supervisor John Thomas over issues including Glen’s Local Solar Law, which went into effect in November and sets parameters for both small- and large-scale solar projects.
ConnectGen has letters of intent with several local landowners that the company hopes to turn into long-term lease agreements, with proposed sites for the project — which is set to cover about 2,000 total acres, with an estimated 1,400 to 1,600 acres of solar panels behind security fences — located in areas around Auriesville and Ingersoll roads.
Last year, Mill Point was one of 21 solar projects — and the second-largest, behind only the proposed 500-megawatt Cider Solar Farm in Genesee County — to receive awards under the New York State Energy Research & Development Agency’s request for proposals under the Clean Energy Standard that is moving the state toward 70 percent of its electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030.
“In my view,” Barry said of the awards, “it’s representative of this development occurring across the state in order to meet policy goals for renewable energy in the state.”
In an email to The Daily Gazette, Thomas classified the Mill Point Solar project as being in the “very early development phase,” and that the company had not yet filed an official application for the project, but was planning to hold its first public information session in March.
In his email, Thomas added that commercial solar is a permitted use in the town of Glen, and the project would require a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to move forward.
“Personally,” Thomas wrote, “I support renewable energy.”
The project is about a year into development, Barry said, and so far he’s seen a positive attitude from both local officials and prospective partners for land agreements.
“The reception from the town level has been great,” he said. “We’ve got a considerable number of local landowners who are participating, so obviously their reception of the project is good. We really haven’t had any sort of negative feedback or opposition to the project arise.”
Siting the project in the town of Glen comes down to ideal conditions — flat, buildable land located close to electric lines that can handle the new capacity.
Barry said goals moving forward are for the project to hopefully submit its application for an Article 10 certificate later this year, while simultaneously moving forward with other stages of the review process.
The hope, he said, is for the 250-megawatt farm to complete construction and come online in 2023 or 2024.
If all continues to go smoothly, Barry said, the future for solar energy in the Mohawk Valley appears, well, bright.
“Really,” he said, “across the state of New York, I would say that’s the case.”