Solar path may wind up in court

A portion of the 360-acre site where the Hecate Energy project would be located. Contributed photo

COPAKE — Ongoing clashes over the Shepherd’s Run solar project could lead to litigation.

At a town hall meeting Wednesday hosted by the group Sensible Solar for Rural New York, several people and elected officials spoke about the project, which has generated heated discussion for months.

“The town of Copake recognizes climate change as an existential crisis,” Copake Town Supervisor Jeanne Mettler said. “We are open to, and we have solar projects within the town of Copake. This one is just too big. We are offended by a state law which tramples home rule, which completely disregards the laws of our town and the sensibilities of our people.”

The proposed Shepherd’s Run project would be a 360-acre solar farm. The town previously passed zoning laws that limit the size of utility scale solar installations to 10 acres.

The town board in October unanimously adopted a resolution opposing construction of the project. Mettler said the resolution urged New York state to adopt legislation that would meet the challenges of climate change without violating the right of home rule and local zoning powers.

“We are aware that right now there is a law being proposed in Albany, which by reducing the requirement of environmental review will make it even easier for corporations to win approval for utility scale solar installations like Hecate’s Shepherd’s Run,” Mettler said. “In the name of protecting the planet we are sacrificing the environment. We urge Hecate to come back to Copake. Come to Copake with a plan that we can all live with. And if Hecate does not do that everyone will go back into their corners, there will be litigation for years to come and a valuable opportunity will have been lost.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday new regulations have been adopted by the state to dramatically accelerate the siting and construction of major renewable energy facilities across New York state. The new regulations, known as Section 94C, replace the previous process, Article 10.

Projects advanced under the new regulations, which are part of the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, “will help the state combat climate change and jump-start its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

The act consolidates the environmental review process and permitting of major renewable energy facilities larger than 25 megawatts in New York state and provides a single forum in which Office of Renewable Energy Siting will serve as a one-stop shop for the coordinated and timely review of proposed major renewable energy facilities, according to the announcement.

All big-scale, renewable energy projects larger than 25 megawatts will be required to seek an approved permit through the Siting Office for new construction or expansion, according to the state Energy Research and Development Authority. Projects in the initial phases of the current Article 10 siting process may remain in the original approval process or opt-in to the new siting process.

Several speakers at Wednesday’s meeting asked that Hecate commit to the state’s Article 10 process rather than switch to the Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act.

Alex Campbell of Hecate Energy, the project’s developer, said Article 10 was first established in 2011. Since then there have been 11 certificates awarded to projects.

Campbell disagreed with some of the figures raised by several speakers and said it is not true that each town in the state would need just six megawatts to meet the state’s energy goals.

“I don’t want people to get the wrong information and form their opinions,” Campbell said. “I presented numbers very clearly in December that outlined all of this really important contextual framing. I think in the context of, is Article 10 easy? No. How much power is actually needed in New York state to reach our climate goals? A tremendous amount. Do we have time to do small projects here and there? No, and I think Texas is a prime example of that.”

Regarding the project going to court, Campbell said he was unsure who the town, or individuals, would litigate against.

“Hecate is following the state guidelines for permitting,” Campbell said. “And we are going above and beyond in a lot of cases. So I don’t know who these groups or individuals would sue. Would they sue the state? I don’t know, it’s not something that I have considered because we’re following a rule book that has been established in New York government. And if we didn’t then we would never receive a permit certificate, and so we’re doing everything by the book, so I don’t know what would be litigated.”

Darin Johnson, director of Sensible Solar for Rural New York, said there are several steps Hecate can take to work with the town. The organization would like Hecate to meet with Copake’s zoning board, have the company’s CEO visit the proposed site and participate in a roundtable discussion about the issues. The group also wants the company to publicly commit to paying full county, town and school taxes, and implement landscaping and screening, site management, decommissioning and other protective requirements. Sensible Solar for Rural New York is also urging the company to commit to the state’s Article 10 process.

“If Hecate is not willing to sit down and work within our laws and work with our local officials, or if they decide to take ORES (Office of Renewable Energy Siting), we will make sure that this is tied up in the courts for years,” Johnson said. “And it will cost Hecate a lot more money than it would today.”

Deputy Town Supervisor Richard Wolf said there has been some progress on the issue. Hecate announced in January the project was being downsized from the original 500 acres to the 360-acre project.

“So why is Hecate seeking site approval from the state and not from Copake?” Wolf said. “Because the state has stacked the deck and all but guarantees that any developer like Hecate will be able to do what it wants, where it wants to do it. So long as nobody pays attention and so long as the developer thinks big and builds big.”

Campbell said he has spoken with a number of local residents about the project and its potential impact on them.

“I joined the meeting last night to listen to what people have to say,” Campbell said. “A constructive dialogue is a great dialogue and so when people that are opposed to the project have comments and concerns and things I’ve never heard of before, that’s great. That’s the reason I joined last night, to fully understand what’s going on.”

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