WESTERLO – After the Westerlo Town Board unanimously passed three renewable-energy laws at its Oct. 5 meeting – just two weeks after it approved the town’s first codified comprehensive plan – Deputy Supervisor Matthew Kryzak said, “I hear angels singing.”
The passage of these laws, which regulate wind- and solar-facility development, along with battery systems, was the final step in a years-long effort to both respond to and prepare for booms in renewable-energy development, spurred in part by New York State’s goal of having its energy sources entirely renewable by 2040.
The town had allowed five solar projects to be built within its borders in two years before it halted development with a solar and wind moratorium in 2019, so that it could write a comprehensive plan and better understand the desires of residents, some of whom were upset by the commercial solar fields that sprung up amid the relative tranquility of the landscape.
The moratorium, which was extended twice, is still effective until mid-November.
But while the comprehensive plan – a document with no real legal weight – was critical to the town’s long-term planning goals, these laws are what will most fundamentally manage renewable-energy development in the town, followed by the judgment of the town’s planning board and zoning board of appeals.
The solar law just passed is a repeal and replacement of Westerlo’s prior solar law, passed in 2019.
The new law adjusts 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 reduces 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 prohibits any solar energy system from generating sound and vibration that’s perceptible beyond the boundaries of the property.
Furthermore, the new law requires 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.”
Another addition to the town’s solar law is 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 wind-energy law distinguishes commercial systems from noncommercial 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 requires site-plan approval for all wind systems taller than 20 feet from the ground. The maximum height for a noncommercial system is 100 feet, with no maximum for commercial systems.
In noncommercial systems, the law also requires 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 noncommercial systems is 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 requires 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 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 prohibits 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 is allowed within 100 feet of a water supply or water-supply intake, and system setbacks are determined by a formula that factors in the system’s height.
As is common with renewable-energy facilities, wind-energy systems within the town are covered by a decommissioning plan that requires developers to more or less deconstruct any defective or abandoned facility and rehabilitate the affected parcels.
And, 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).
The battery law defines a battery-energy-storage system (also known as BESS) 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 or consist of more than one technology.
Battery systems will require a building and electrical permit from the town.
Tier One systems are 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 is 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 is the same as those for “principal structures of the underlying zoning district,” the law states.
Developers are also required to produce an operation and maintenance manual as well as an emergency operations plan.
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