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What you need to know for 08/23/2017

900-acre solar farm proposed in Canajoharie, Minden

900-acre solar farm proposed in Canajoharie, Minden

Project could cost $200 million
900-acre solar farm proposed in Canajoharie, Minden
Photographer: Shutterstock

CANAJOHARIE and MINDEN — A massive solar power farm covering 900 acres and costing as much as $200 million is being proposed in the towns of Canajoharie and Minden. 

The facility would occupy a patchwork of farmland under long-term leases with landowners and would generate 90 megawatts of electricity. 

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The proposal, dubbed Mohawk Solar by developer Community Energy Solar, has been under discussion with local officials for months as Community Energy Solar studied aspects like costs; the permitting process; the ability to get the electricity to market through an existing power transmission line and economics of selling the electricity and claiming state renewable energy credits. The company began development of the project in March 2015.

Community Energy Solar started the permitting process Friday with a submission to the state Department of Public Service outlining the project’s details, benefits and impact.

Jay Carlis, executive vice president of Community Energy Solar, said the review process will take one to three years to complete, but the company’s feasibility studies look promising.

“We’ve done a very careful site selection here,” he said.

The Mohawk Solar site straddles the Minden-Canajoharie border and comes within a mile or so of the southern boundary of the village Fort Plain. It might seem removed from the nearest population centers, where the need for electricity is greatest, but by power industry standards, it is not far: It sits within the power grid’s Albany zone, and -- a crucial detail -- there is a 115-kilovolt transmission line crossing the northeast corner of the site.

About a dozen property owners have agreed to long-term leases for land that sits generally on a south-facing slope, ideal for catching sunlight. Carlis would not disclose terms of the leases, saying they are confidential, but he said they would extend more than a quarter-century.

He shared some other details with The Daily Gazette on Tuesday:

  • The land is mostly under-productive farmland and pasture; no forests will be cleared for the solar farm.
  • The project will cost between $150 million and $200 million.
  • The solar panels will reach 10 to 12 feet off the ground; they will be installed in a patchwork of clusters, not a single contiguous block, and each cluster will be fenced. The fences will be screened with evergreens and locally native plants.
  • Power lines within the farm will run underground. 
  • A substation will be built to take electricity from the underground lines to the overhead 115-kilovolt St. Johnsville-Marshville transmission line, and from there into the state’s power grid.
  • The panels have a 25-year warranty and can be replaced when needed, so the project may have a very long lifespan.
  • If the solar farm is built and later decommissioned, the land can be returned to productive agriculture use, as there will be no concrete poured to secure the hundreds of thousands of panels to the ground.

Community Energy Solar identified dozens of stakeholders and interested parties as it moved the Mohawk Solar project out of the concept stage and toward the formal review stage. Carlis said their input has been sought informally up to this point and will be sought more formally going forward.

However, local officials will have no direct control over the plan.

Mohawk Solar is the first solar power proposal ever to qualify for Article 10 of state Public Service Law, which was enacted in 2011 to streamline the review process for electric power projects of 25 megawatts or greater. Under Article 10, the Department of Public Service has sole authority over the project, rather than town planning and zoning boards.

The Public Service Department's Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment will decide whether to permit the project. The board is structured so its five permanent members are joined by two ad hoc members from the community for which a project is proposed, so there will be some local aspect to the review.

There may be some local control on taxes: Montgomery County in October enacted a mechanism by which it could create payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements with developers of solar farms, which under state law are exempt for 15 years from being taxed on the value of the equipment that transforms vacant land into a solar power generation facility.

Carlis said the developers would take local input into account and could make revisions to the plan as the process progresses.

“We’ve had local involvement from the beginning, which goes back many months,” he said.

Carlis said Community Energy Solar, which is based in Radnor, Pennsylvania, has developed more than 70 solar projects in 20 states. Four other large solar projects -- ranging from 80 to 120 megawatts in Colorado, George, Minnesota and Virginia -- were each the first of their kind in those states. Community Energy Solar also has developed wind power projects, which often encounter more public resistance, due to their visual impact on the landscape.

“[Solar is] very different from wind,” Carlis said. “The wind turbine can be seen for many miles around. From a visual perspective, [solar panels] almost go unnoticed.”

At 90 megawatts, Mohawk Solar would be a game-changer on the state’s solar power landscape. For comparison:

  • By state regulators’ tally, as of Dec. 31, 2016, the 8,365 solar installations in the eight-county Capital Region have a capacity of 113 megawatts.
  • The 1,790 solar arrays in the six-county Mohawk Valley region are capable of generating 27 megawatts.
  • The Long Island Solar Farm built in 2011 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the largest single array in the state, is rated at 32 megawatts.
  • A large array being built for the city of Saratoga Springs will generate 2.57 megawatts.
  • Skidmore College’s solar farm has a 2.1 megawatt capacity.
  • The solar panels at Schenectady County’s recycling and compost facility in Glenville are rated at 0.6 megawatts.
  • Two of the newest fossil fuel-burning power plants in the region, in Bethlehem and Rensselaer, are rated at 757 and 645 megawatts, respectively. Both are powered by natural gas.

Each megawatt is enough to power several hundred households; the exact number varies by who is doing the calculations and gradually changes along with American lifestyles, house construction practices, industry trends and home appliance technology.

In its regulatory filing, Community Energy estimates Mohawk Solar would generate enough power for more than 20,000 homes.

Town and county officials could not be reached for comment or declined to comment for this story.

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