Local governments wary of Cuomo’s renewables review plan 

Barre, the least populated town in rural Orleans County, is poised to become a renewable energy hotspot.

One company wants to build 33 wind turbines across the 55-square mile town, located just south of Albion. Another is pursuing plans for an 1,800-acre solar farm to be split between the southwest corner of Barre and the neighboring town of Shelby.

Town officials aren’t standing in the way of either project. The solar farm proposal, from Community Energy, is new and in very early stages, but officials have been working with Apex Clean Energy on its Heritage Wind project for more than three years. They’ve provided feedback and have been working on several agreements, including one that could provide the town with annual payments around $1 million.

Supervisor Sean Pogue hopes that the windfall will finance a tax cut for Barre and its 2,000 residents.

“We've got some people that are against it, but the majority of the people in this community have said ... if we all in the community can benefit from it, then they're in favor of it,” Pogue said during a phone interview.

But Pogue, like other municipal leaders across the state, worries that a proposal introduced recently by Governor Andrew Cuomo could weaken the role of local governments in renewable energy projects. He’s especially concerned that the changes will give towns like his less leverage to negotiate crucial agreements for those projects — especially those that provide for community-wide benefits.

“It'd be beneficial for all concerned to streamline it. I just don't like the concept that the municipality is removed from all of that,” Pogue said. “They need input from day one, that's all there is to it.”

Cuomo’s proposal came as an amendment to his 2020-21 budget proposal. If passed, the legislation would create a new process for the state to review, site, and permit renewable energy projects with more than a 25-megawatt capacity. (Conservatively, 25 megawatts could power an estimated 10,000 homes.)

Renewables projects over 25 megawatts — a category that includes both Barre projects — are currently handled by the state’s Public Service Commission. The commission’s reviewing and siting process has long frustrated wind and solar developers, local and state government officials, attorneys, and engaged citizens who find it onerous, inefficient, confusing, and inconsistent.

Cuomo’s proposal would consolidate all environmental and technical reviews under a new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting within the state’s Department of Economic Development. Doing so will “ensure permitting decisions are predictable, responsible, and delivered on pace to help the state” meet its goal for 70 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewables by 2030, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

The governor’s proposal would also allow existing projects already deep into the commission’s process, such as Heritage Wind, to opt in to the new arrangement. It’s not clear what impact that would have on any tentative agreements between municipalities and developers.

“We are encouraged by the governor’s recognition of siting reform as key to achieving the state’s climate goals and share the state’s commitment to advancing renewable energy deployment,” Brian O’Shea, public engagement manager for Apex Clean Energy, wrote in response to questions from CITY. “We are currently evaluating the legislation and what it might mean for our projects.”

Apex also proposed the controversial Lighthouse Wind project in the Orleans County town of Yates and the Niagara County town of Somerset. That project is currently on hold.

Wind and solar developers are enthusiastic about the governor’s proposal.

“The current process has been a big barrier to getting projects built on time and it’s also scaring developers away from New York,” Ann Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, said.

The new process would cut out some of the bureaucratic back-and-forth that frustrates developers and local government officials alike, Reynolds said. The new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting would be tasked with developing standardized operating procedures for wind and solar farms, things that are currently determined by a state siting board that’s convened through the Public Service Commission.

Those fundamental details include limits on noise and wetland impacts, as well as aspects of decommissioning. Residents often want to know those specifics, but developers and local officials often can’t provide them early on, since the siting board develops those details in the midst of its reviews.

“We’re hoping that the towns like the part where the conditions would be established up front,” Reynolds said.

The commission’s process, which is conducted under Article 10 of the Public Service Law, involves considerable public input and local government involvement. But the state does have the ability to override local laws if a developer can prove that they are unreasonable.

Municipalities “rightly want to have input,” Reynolds said.

“Under this proposal, they would still have input and it would still be this new office’s final decision,” she added. “But it’s up to the...developer to say why they can’t abide by some local law.”

Still, the state-wide Association of Towns is wary of Cuomo’s plan.

“Towns unquestionably support and understand the need for renewable energy; however, if the new expedited siting proposal is going to go through we believe there needs to be some amendments both to clarify some issues and to ensure that the public has an opportunity to participate,” Sarah Brancatella, legislative director and counsel for the state-wide Association of Towns, wrote in an email to CITY.

The association is also concerned that the proposal would limit opportunities for the public to provide input on a project, though the governor’s office has said that any substantive issue raised by a municipality or the public would be thoroughly examined and addressed.

There is additional worry that the proposal broadens the state’s authority to override local law. Brancatella acknowledges that siting boards can already do so if the developer can make a case that the statutes are “unreasonably burdensome.” But under Cuomo’s proposal, the new permitting office can also override local laws if they are “unduly burdensome to the state’s clean energy goals,” she wrote.

“From our perspective, giving local governments the opportunity to voice their concerns about huge projects in their community does not slow down the process and actually leads to a better outcome,” Brancatella stated. “So, we’re anxious to work with the state on creating a policy that furthers clean energy goals and allows those who will be impacted the most to be part of the process.”

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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