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ALBANY – A top Department of Public Service official told renewable developers on Wednesday that the agency is working to make the state’s permitting process for utility scale wind, solar and fossil fuel projects “frictionless.”
Sarah Osgood, the agency’s director of policy implementation, has been tasked with addressing challenges with Article 10, the seven year old state law for permitting energy generators above 25 megawatts. Renewable developers and environmental advocates have repeatedly identified the cumbersome process as a major barrier to achieving Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030.
“We need to have a rigorous and comprehensive application and review process but – and this is I think a very big but – the process must work. Hard stop. It must work. It needs to be as frictionless and smooth as possible, and we’re moving in that direction but we clearly have work to do,”
Osgood told an audience of renewable developers at the annual fall conference for the Alliance for Clean Energy in New York. “We’ve hear you loud and clear, I’ve heard you, and I’ve committed to improving.” Osgood’s conciliatory tone was a stark contrast to the position taken last year by the department’s top lawyer. Paul Agresta, who has since retired, admonished developers and argued the siting process was working well at the same conference in 2017.
Siting has remained a serious concern for developers. Osgood was part of a panel focused on those challenges and strategies. Only one project has been approved through the Article 10 process so far. Four applications have been deemed complete, starting a one year clock on a decision. Another 33 projects are in the pipeline.
“The process itself hasn’t gotten faster in the last year or more predictable,” said Alliance for Clean Energy’s Anne Reynolds of the Article 10 siting process. “But the fact that they are dedicating such an experienced person to examine the process and make it more efficient does make me more optimistic.”
Local communities where large scale wind and solar projects are proposed have raised concerns about the facilities themselves and the Article 10 process. They argue the siting board, which is dominated by state officials, overrides local control. State officials have emphasized that waivers of local laws, which are possible under Article 10, are not desirable.
“If we got into a routine of waiving local laws to get these projects built, I think we run a serious risk of having it be difficult if not impossible to meet the state’s clean energy goals,” Osgood said.
Developers, environmental advocates and legal observers don’t necessarily agree. Eleanor Stein, an Albany Law School professor who does work with the Rocky Mountain Institute and helped develop REV, said the state siting board should already have started to waive local restrictions to get projects built.
Waiving local restrictions could be necessary to achieve the state’s Clean Energy Standard goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030, said Michael Gerrard, the founder and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. He said he’d support a rule that wind projects could not be blocked because of concerns about visual impacts.
“It’s necessary to have a large number of these projects built as quickly as possible,” Gerrard said. “It’s certainly my hope that the siting board will be liberal in its issuance of these waivers whenever [local laws] are really getting in the way.”
One other key part of the Article 10 process involves interested parties agreeing to stipulations before negotiations begin to limit the scope of discussions. Osgood said the hope is to standardize some of the least controversial parts of siting. Osgood said the utility regulator has heard developers’ concerns about new issues being raised late in the Article 10 process and will strive to avoid that situation.
She said another challenge has been staffing to manage the dozens of proposed renewable projects in the pipeline. The department needs to develop better “triage mechanisms” to deal with the stack of projects coming in rather than just focusing on hitting statutory deadlines, she said.
“We have so many more projects coming in than the department was set up to handle. So everything falls in line,” Osgood said. “That can work when you have a small number of projects, but when you get into having dozens and ultimately hundreds of projects, you can’t just say it was the first one in the door so I’m going to address that and I threw that back over the fence with some deficiencies and when it comes back in it goes to the bottom of the pile. That will only exacerbate the problem.”
Instead, regulators should offer an early initial reaction to raise issues. More pleasant and less adversarial relationships and discussions between regulators and developers are also needed, Osgood said.
The department has hired outside consultants to work on technically challenging issues such as noise and vibration for wind projects and decommissioning for wind and solar projects.
Gerrard said that environmental advocates and others supportive of Cuomo’s clean energy goals should be pushing for additional resources for the department to speed up the siting of large scale renewables.
“There’s a real inconsistency between the level of ambition in the state energy plan and the resources the state is devoting to moving projects through this process,” he said. “If the state is really serious about meeting these objectives it has to appropriate more money and create more staff position or more money for consultants or do whatever is necessary.”
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