WESTERLO – With its long-awaited comprehensive plan more or less finished, Westerlo is working to pass three renewable energy laws that would further regulate wind and solar facilities in town, as well as the batteries that store energy generated by those facilities.
The town currently has a moratorium on wind and solar development that’s scheduled to expire in August, creating some degree of urgency around the passage of these bills.
Consequently, the town board proposed the laws and held an in-person public hearing on June 15, before it officially adopted Westerlo’s comprehensive plan, which is a non-legally binding document that guides municipal development processes.
One Westerlo resident, Barbara Russell, was particularly critical of the board during the public hearing for drafting the three energy bills when the draft comprehensive plan could theoretically take on a whole new shape with new priorities and values before its adoption. Russell had expressed that and other concerns in a letter to the Enterprise editor last week.
“It might be a little premature to have this public hearing until the comprehensive plan is adopted,” Russell told the board.
Supervisor Bill Bichteman assured Russell during the meeting that, because the comprehensive plan committee had spent so much time collating facts and figures for the massive document, there is virtually no chance that its conclusions or guidance to the town will be significantly altered.
Any anxieties related to the comprehensive plan and these proposed laws likely arise from the solar boom Westerlo experienced between 2017 and 2019, when five solar projects were approved by the town’s planning board, including the 90-acre twin arrays at Shepard Farm, leading the town to enact its moratorium in 2019 and establish a committee that could compose an ample comprehensive plan.
Still, the comprehensive plan, which collected information from more than 450 households, reveals that about 40 percent of those respondents are in favor of the town advocating for commercial renewable energy development “with logistical parameters put in place by town code,” while an additional 17 percent of respondents felt that residents should be free to invite solar developers to use their properties “as they wish.”
Approximately 30 percent of the respondents are against the town promoting commercial renewable development entirely.
The new law would adjust regulations around both commercial and residential solar energy systems, with the most substantial changes being to commercial regulations. The difference between commercial and residential systems is the point of energy consumption. The bill defines a residential system as one that produces energy on the same property on which the energy is consumed while a facility that sends the energy away is a commercial system.
For both residential and commercial systems, the new law would reduce the maximum height for freestanding residential solar energy collectors from 20 feet to 12 feet, except when a variance is acquired. And, unlike the current law, it would prohibit any solar energy system from generating sound and vibration that’s perceptible beyond the boundaries of the property.
Furthermore, the new law would require homeowners to inform the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company of any solar energy system installations so that the fire department can “bring the necessary equipment to break into the roof to alleviate the smoke and take other needed actions in case of a fire at the premises.”
The most notable addition to the town’s solar law would be a section regarding an expedited application process for solar systems “with a rated maximum power of twenty-five kilowatts (25 kW) or less, which are Grid-Tied, and which do not include or incorporate a Storage System, notwithstanding the use of the Solar Energy System.”
Qualifying systems can be permitted by the town so long as the developer provides an application for the expedited process, project plans that include basic information about the property being built on, and a site plan. Once the town’s code-enforcement officer and fire district review the materials and approve of the project, the code-enforcement officer “shall issue a combined building and electrical permit for the subject Solar System,” the law states.
The bill also states that no commercial solar system shall be built on a property composed of prime farmland or which contains prime soils; nor on a property containing more than one acre of mature forest or which was a mature forest one year prior to the submission of a project application.
However, Bichteman indicated during the public hearing that he’s interested in modifying or eliminating the prime-soils section because the standard would be “too tough to keep,” he said, explaining that a property can contain only a small amount of prime farmland or soils and be excluded under the current reading.
Bichteman resigned as supervisor on June 18.
The town’s proposed wind energy systems law, if adopted, would be Westerlo’s first stand-alone law regarding wind energy.
The law distinguishes commercial wind energy systems from non-commercial systems in the same way that the solar law distinguishes the two, but adds that any system that has a capacity of 10 kilowatts or more is considered commercial.
The law would require site-plan approval for all wind systems taller than 20 feet from the ground. The maximum height for a non-commercial system is 100 feet, while the absolute maximum for any system is 676 feet.
In non-commercial systems, the law would also require 15 feet of clearance between the ground and any part of the rotor blade, while 30 feet would be required for commercial systems.
The setback for non-commercial systems would be determined by multiplying the total height of each system by 1.5, and those systems would not be allowed to produce a sound or vibration perceptible beyond the property line.
The law would require participants to produce the following for site-plan approval: a survey of any and all parcels that will contain at least some portion of the wind-energy facility, a landscape plan, an inventory of natural features on any and all affected parcels and the anticipated impacts, and a map plan.
When a special-use permit is required, as it would be for any commercial system, applicants would have to provide, among many other things, a visual impact study, justification for siting, plans for mitigating environmental impact, a noise analysis, and a shadow-flicker study.
The law would prohibit any system from producing more than 45 A-weighted decibels (dBA) of continuous sound at any non-participant residence or 55 dBA at any participant residence, with a downward adjustment of 5 dBA for nighttime sound maximums.
No wind turbine or system facility would be allowed within 100 feet of a water supply or water-supply intake, and system setbacks would be determined by a formula accounting for the system’s height.
As is common with renewable-energy facilities, wind-energy facilities within the town would be covered by a decommissioning plan that requires developers to more or less deconstruct any defective or abandoned facility and rehabilitate the affected parcels.
As in the town’s proposed solar law, the proposed wind law allows for an expedited application process for qualifying systems (those with a capacity of less than 2 kilowatts, for wind systems).
Like the proposed wind law, the proposed battery-energy-storage-systems law would, if adopted, be the first of its kind in Westerlo.
The law defines a battery-energy-storage system as “a rechargeable energy storage system comprising Batteries, Battery chargers, controls, power conditioning systems and associated electrical equipment designed to provide electrical power.”
The bill splits systems into two tiers. Tier One systems have a capacity of less than or equal to 600 kilowatt hours and consist of “only a single Energy Storage System technology.” Tier Two systems have a capacity beyond 600 kWh and can consist of more than one technology.
Battery systems will require a building and electrical permit from the town.
Tier One systems would be allowed in all zones of town except hamlets, and would require issuance of a Battery Energy Storage Systems Permit, while all the same is true of Tier Two systems plus the requirement of a special-use permit.
The maximum noise permitted by a battery system would be 60 dBA “as measured at the outside wall of any Non-participating residence and Occupied Community Building,” the bill states.
Maximum height and setbacks for a Tier Two system would be the same as those for “principal structures of the underlying zoning district,” the law states.
Developers would also be required to produce an operation and maintenance manual as well as an emergency operations plan.
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