With a number of renewable energy projects underway in Chenango County, local officials are grappling with regulating their development.
A solar farm in Norwich, billed as one of the largest in the state, is nearing completion, according to Jeffrey Mayer, CEO of Solar Farms New York.
Comprising 52,569 panels at an estimated total cost of $22 million, the project is slated for completion by December, according to Mayer.
Solar Farms New York leased the property from David Evans, Norwich town supervisor, and his family.
The supervisor recused himself from the entire process, according to his brother, Bill, who serves as town budget officer and has been assisting with supervisor duties for several weeks as David recovers from a stroke.
Evans said his family was contacted by three or four different solar companies looking to develop on their land, a gentle-sloping 80 acres behind the family farm on state Route 23.
“This wasn’t something we sought out,” Evans explained. “We weighed our options and decided to go with this company because they made commitments and followed through on them.”
“As farmers, we’ve always been conservationists and tried to be good to the land,” he continued. “(The company was) very sensitive to the fact that our farm is certified organic, in terms of the sprays they use and the groundskeeping.”
Once connected to the existing power grid maintained by the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, the project will produce about 20 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year — enough energy to power 2,000 homes in the area — and will offset at least 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to Mayer.
“We expect the farms to produce for 40 to 50 years,” Mayer said. “There are panels that were installed in the ‘70s that still produce electricity.”
The panels are projected to produce at 90% capacity after 20 years, Mayer said, but anticipated improvements in technology may prolong the lifespan of the panels.
“Unlike conventional utilities or even wind, solar farms have no moving parts — they’re very low maintenance,” Mayer said.
The company negotiated a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan on the property, Mayer said. About $1,415,000 will be paid to the town of Norwich throughout the project’s 20-year contract, the maximum time frame allowed by the state.
In the event the contract is not renewed or replaced, a decommissioning bond requested by the town will cover the cost of clearing the area, Mayer said.
The project’s construction has been “very quiet, with quite a lot of traffic,” Evans said, noting that as many as 150 workers are on the property in a typical workday. “We wanted to be good neighbors — there’s lots of woods surrounding, and no close development or neighbors to disturb.”
Evans said the original property, which expanded throughout the years, was purchased by his grandparents in 1921.
“It had been our dream that there would be continuing generations of dairy farmers on this land,” Evans said. “We thought it was the best option for us to help produce some good, clean energy.”
Evans said town officials did not draft or amend any legislation concerning the development of renewable energy projects, but that the town board “conducted all the required processes,” referring the matter to the Town Planning Board, which then passed it on to the Chenango County Planning Board and the Chenango County industrial development agency to handle the PILOT plan.
The Town of Columbus has no pending renewable energy development projects, according to Supervisor Thomas Grace, but officials are considering a one-year moratorium on commercial solar development.
“We’re not trying to keep solar out — we’re trying to be proactive and do it while we don’t have a pending project,” Grace said, citing the neighboring developments in Norwich and Guilford.
The moratorium would buy the town some time to research the growing industry and determine how the projects would be taxed, Grace said.
“Five years ago, who would’ve thought we’d get so many solar projects?” he said.
In 2015, the town board passed legislation regulating wind development, Grace said, requiring project permits, establishing liability insurance requirements, authorizing the Town Planning Board as the supervising entity and enabling town officials to enforce size and noise restrictions.
Applications for a 25-turbine wind farm in the town of Guilford have been submitted to the state by the Calpine Corporation, a Texas-based development firm, according to George Seneck, Guilford town supervisor.
Last month, the town board passed a renewable energy systems law to govern certain aspects of the development of wind and solar facilities, including decommissioning, testing well water, blasting requirements and battery storage, Seneck said. The law limits the turbines to a height of 676 feet, nearly twice the size of those built in nearby Madison County within the last decade.
As Calpine proceeds with the project, Seneck said “I think the town board thinks we’re ready, but there are some residents who thought we should’ve waited.”
“We need to have something in place” by the time the company submits its final application for approval by the state, Seneck said. “All local laws and regulations must be included in that application.”
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.