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Renewable debates may get too quiet

PORTLAND – Town Supervisor Dan Schrantz opened the public hearing regarding a special-use permit for an Abundant Solar Power, LLC, promptly at 7 p.m. Feb. 12. What followed was an awkward silence for the next 35 seconds.

An uneasy sentiment filled the room. The Town Board, which has been transparent and patient in regard to its stance on green energy projects, thought something needed to be said.

They turned it over to Joel Seachrist, town attorney. Seachrist went over a few highlights of the plan, targeted for 5771 Route 20 that would require 22.8 acres of land.

This spurred some discussion among the two dozen in attendance. “I think the Town Board should pass this resolution to allow … Abundant Solar to develop this project,” said resident Kevin Powell. “These projects are beneficial to our town financially.”

Powell, for his part, has been an advocate for these types of projects. At the meeting in November he brought plans for a solar project on his land and also is considering adding wind turbines as well.

For now, solar appears to be pushing ahead as the moratorium on wind projects in this town continues through at least the end of June. Besides the recently proposed Route 20 location, another solar project was unveiled in September at 5695 Martin Road. At that time the developer, Buffalo Solar Solutions, hailed the effort.

“Everybody wins with this project,” said Jeremy McCool, commercial development manager. “And we hope to continue this trend of bringing solar to every part of Western New York, even those who cannot otherwise obtain it at their properties.”

But not everyone is spreading sunshine.

Even during this month’s hearing in Portland, concerns were raised about fire protection for the panels as well as prime farmland being used. Still up in the air was the payment in lieu of property taxes agreement, which was being negotiated by the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency.

Despite these unanswered questions, the permit was approved by the Town Board, 5-0.

In recent months, other major solar projects have been considered for northern Chautauqua County. Since August, Ripley has been discussing a 270-megawatt proposal that would cover 6,000 acres while Arkwright and Sheridan boards have addressed this topic as well. Even the State University of New York at Fredonia announced plans for a 1.4-megawatt system in December that would be on the north edge of campus adjacent to the New York State Thruway.

With solar, pushback from opponents has not been as vocal as those who despise the turbines. Adding to the dilemma with wind was the Chautauqua County Board of Health in November seeking restrictions on the industrial towers from being constructed within a mile and a half of any residence.

As quiet as it seemed at the Portland hearing this month, it could get deafening for local municipalities regarding renewable energy if the state has its way. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act in a 30-day budget amendment. This would nearly take local decision-making – and residential comments – out of the picture.

“This legislation will help achieve a more sustainable future, invigorating the green economy and reaffirming New York’s position as a market leader with a revamped process for building and delivering renewable energy projects faster,” Cuomo said in the announcement.

Hearing the aftermath in Arkwright and the hotly contested debate in Villenova regarding tall turbines could be a thing of the past with Cuomo’s proposal. State Sen. George Borrello told The Post-Journal this week he sees this as an attempt to silence local voices.

“This is bypassing local zoning and crushing any opposition,” he said. “In order to meet his environmental targets, these projects will need to be constructed on a massive scale and with a density that will literally change the face of upstate New York, transforming it into a barren industrial wasteland. Countless acres of farmland will need to be blanketed with solar farms. Our beautiful shorelines will be marred by the sight of massive mechanical wind turbines towering over the water.”

Cuomo is aiming for a zero-carbon electric sector by 2040. Currently, however, more than half of the state’s electric grid relies on fossil fuels and nuclear for the power that is being generated. Wind and solar made up less than 9% of that fuel mix, according to readings on the New York Independent System Operator website before noon Thursday.

These energy grid readings add urgency to Cuomo’s pitch for state control over renewable projects. If the governor gets his way, the quiet regarding these proposals at board meetings, such as the one in Portland, will no longer seem awkward. It will become the new normal.