The Batavia Town Board this afternoon called for a “timeout” as it attempts to keep up with the changing landscape of the solar farm industry.
During a special meeting via Zoom videoconferencing, the board passed a resolution to hold a public hearing to consider Local Law No. 1 of 2021 entitled, “A Local Law, Establishing a Town of Batavia Moratorium on Solar Energy Systems.”
The public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Jan. 20 at Batavia Town Hall on West Main Street Road.
The board also voted to declare lead agency status with regard to an environmental review per the State Environmental Quality Review Act and will prepare an assessment form for this action.
Supervisor Gregory Post said that several key changes have taken place since the board passed the town’s solar ordinance five years ago.
“This is something that probably was going to be addressed during the course of the past 2020 year along with a revisit to our comprehensive plan and other things that were budgeted in our planning budget,” Post said. “We continue to work to be an energy efficient community – and have received a lot of grant money as a result – but so much has changed and now is the time for a review.”
Post pointed to the following aspects pertaining to community and large-scale solar projects that must be considered:
- New York State Article 10
“In my opinion, solar farms also serve as an ag protection plan in that the ground remains fertile and available for farming in the future,” he said. “But now, New York State has jumped in with Article 10 and started taking over towns' rights.”
He said that “giant corporate entities” are taking thousands of acres without local participation or control, specifically mentioning huge projects in Byron, Oakfield and Elba.
“I’ve also talked to the Town of Le Roy Supervisor (James Farnholz) and he was expressing some frustration in that they had spent an enormous amount of time and energy to come up with a solar law, only to have the governor and the state change it almost on the same day they were prepared to adopt it,” Post offered. “And it caused them to have to go back and revisit it.”
The supervisor said there’s much to learn about Article 10 (and a new state regulation to replace it).
“That’s another reason to hold things up until we all are better understanding of the Article 10 process and the changes to Article 10, and the experiences of other communities that are in Article 10,” he said. “Planning and zoning board members need to be educated about this stuff because it is a big deal and it is bound to be more time consuming than expected.”
- Building More Than What is Needed
Post said the recommendations of so-called experts has led developers to “overbuild capacity.”
“They’re building solar and wasting energy because the price to develop solar now is so cheap … instead of building what you need, they build 130, 150, 200 (megawatt) -- maybe three times what you need, and if you don’t have a place for it, that’s all right because it’s cheap to build,” he said. “That wasn’t the thinking five or six years ago.”
Post said the advancement in battery stations likely have expanded the solar farm feasibility map.
“At the outset, we were comfortable that there would be very few places available for solar development because of the need for the connectivity to part of the grid that was able to handle the output,” he explained. “There was essentially a limitation on the number and locations of solar because National Grid’s network wasn’t able to connect all these farms – it had to be where there was capacity and those places on that map were limited.”
Now, Post said that he and the town’s engineering staff suspect that the mapping has changed.
“With these battery things, maybe you can store it up and feed it back in little bits and quantity. So, we have to address it,” he said.
- ‘Hidden’ Costs to Municipalities
Post said increasing administrative costs are cause for a discussion about whether a tax should be imposed upon solar farms, which (to varying degrees) already are subsidized by tax dollars. Currently, the town does not tax property owners who are leasing land for solar.
“Again, five years ago we didn’t expect there would be any cost to service a solar farm. They got a driveway cut, and they don’t request any services from the town. There’s no need for police or fire or highway or water or sewer. Essentially, it’s like driving past a field of alfalfa – there’s nothing there. So, we weren’t looking to exploit that because we didn’t anticipate any costs,” he said.
Today, the town is “really seeing how expensive the administration of these applications is – with the engineering review and the decommissioning bonds and our attorney’s fee, and just the overall cost of the community’s resources because we are stretched thin,” he advised.
Post said he had no opinion either way but sees the need to get people to the table to look at the cost issue.
He said the moratorium will not affect solar projects that are in the pipeline – it should be noted that the town has permitted numerous solar farms thus far – and that “anything new coming in can wait 90 days or so.”
“Once the public hearing is held and we pass the moratorium, hopefully we will have more public participation … and hopefully we will be in a better place with COVID and have a better idea of our revenues,” he added.