As the local region celebrated Earth Day Saturday, an ever increasing number of solar clean energy projects are looking for land in Fulton and Montgomery counties. Advancing efficiency in solar cell technology and decreasing production costs have converged with the relatively inexpensive cost of leasing local farmland and its proximity to the Capital Region to create a surge in local solar development. And as the solar projects have increased, local governments are scrambling to create a regulatory framework for them and have adopted strategies to tax the entities.
Mohawk Solar, a project developers say could be the largest in New York state, is targeting the towns of Canajoharie and Minden for a 900-acre, 90-megawatt solar farm.
The company proposing the $200 million project is called Community Energy Solar and it recently filed a Public Involvement Plan to the New York state Department of Public Service, one of the requirements of the state’s Article 10 power plant siting law.
Even so, Vice President Jay Carlos said the process to build such a project is long and complicated.
“This is the first stage of the Article 10 process – we’re the first solar project to enter into that process – and it can be a long process,” Carlis said. “We’re still at the early stages. We have leases with a number of land owners, and we’re well-into our NYISO [New York Independent System Operator] interconnection study process. We’ve spoken to some of the local officials in Canajoharie…and Minden, so everybody was aware this was in discussions, but it’s still in the early stages of development.”
And as the solar farm companies continue to propose projects in Fulton and Montgomery counties, local governments are scrambling to find ways to regulate them.
The Fulton County Planning Board recently voted to allow the town of Oppenheim to go forward with creating solar regulations, similar to regulations that have been adopted in the towns of Johnstown and Broadalbin. Fulton County Senior Planner Sean Geraghty said the towns of Mayfield and Perth are also working on their own sets of regulations. He said solar companies actually prefer to develop in areas that have established rules and procedures, in part because without local site plan review laws it becomes New York state’s jurisdiction to handle the process, which tends to make it more lengthy. He said he knows of at least 10 projects, so far.
“You’ve got two in Oppenheim, one in Perth, one in Broadalbin, I think there’s about six in Johnstown, so we’re at least 10 right now, and more being proposed,” he said.
Geraghty said one of the draws for developers is the fact Fulton County has less expensive land than Saratoga or Schenectady counties. He said solar farms can also often be developed without disturbing wetlands in many areas that would have been considered marginal-use property and the lease payments can be used basically an annuity for farmers.
Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said he believes his county is being looked at in part because it has a transmission line that is advantageous to the kind of large project being proposed by Community Energy Solar.
Montgomery County in October passed legislation to opt-out of New York state’s 15-year property tax exemption for commercial solar and wind projects and replace them with a blanket Payment in Lieu of Taxes policy covering all commercial projects, but maintaining the exemption for residential solar and wind development. According to the resolution, the exemption under the PILOT schedule in the first year will be 50 percent of the increase in assessed value attributed to the solar or wind improvements. The exception amount will then decrease by 5 percent over the next nine years. The property will then be assessed at the initial assessment without the improvements, and during the next five years, taxed at full value.
“We absolutely thought there was the potential for big projects like [Mohawk Solar] when we were talking about this. We were aware of a number of different companies sending out mailers, leafleting neighborhoods, making phone calls. We knew it was coming and there were a number of other smaller projects going on at the time,” Ossenfort said. “The rationale was, here we were negotiating a PILOT agreement for Dollar General Corp. which going to create, when it’s all said and done, probably 500 jobs with their project, and here you have potential solar projects that are going to generate revenue for businesses that weren’t being taxed at all, so we just didn’t think that was fair, so we said lets treat this as if they were just [like] any other project.”
Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said the Fulton County Board of Supervisors decided to leave the state’s property tax exemption in place, but passed a resolution to implement a 15-year, $8,000 per megawatt tax on new commercial solar projects, which he said will be implemented on a case-by-case basis and will split the revenue between the county and the local municipality the project is built within, on a pro-rated basis according to property tax rates.
“Our board passed a resolution a couple of months ago expressing that it was our intent to pursue negotiated PILOT agreements for solar energy projects when they apply. The first we usually hear about them is when they are going through the local planning or zoning approval process in a town for example,” Stead said. “So, a project owner, under this law, is supposed to notify the taxing jurisdiction of the application process to do a project and then the county has 60 days to reply and let them know the intent is to do a PILOT agreement.”
Stead said the Board of Supervisors’ intent with their approach to taxing the solar projects based on megawatts allows the tax burden to be sized to the project, requiring larger solar farms generating more revenue to pay more.
When Montgomery County passed its solar and wind PILOT policy, some solar companies said at the time that the taxes would discourage solar farms from being developed locally.
Carlis said taxes can be a factor that would discourage development in some cases, but he said he doesn’t know if it would be a factor in discouraging the Mohawk Solar project. He said he hasn’t had time to research Montgomery County’s PILOT law yet. He said his company is hoping to break ground on constructing the 90 megawatt solar farm by 2019.
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