GASPORT — Michael and Barbara Outten live in a remodeled farmhouse where they raised their family.
Michael made his living as a bricklayer, though he is also a pastor, and between him and Barbara, they own four small businesses.
The Outtens love their life in the countryside and don’t want to see it go away.
But they fear time may be running out, since the owners of Becker Farms, a seven-minute drive from the Outten homestead, have struck a deal with EDF Renewables to place a controversial crop in its fields: Solar energy.
“There’s a lot of benefits to solar, obviously, with clean, renewable energy,” said Andres Vizcarra, a manager and member of the family that has owned Becker Farms for generations. “(It’s) a decentralized grid, for one, less dependency on foreign oil, and the company we’re working with, it’s a really good deal.”
The Outtens have teamed up with Charlie Fendt, an emergency management consultant with multiple certifications in hazardous material management and recovery, to publicize what they say are the risks and hazards of battery storage systems, which go along with solar arrays.
To get the word out, they’ve been speaking at public meetings and keeping up a website, inviting all comers to join their cause. They have also been going door-to-door with petitions to stop the project. All public meetings they had planned have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Outtens insist they are not opposed to solar energy, saying a few panels on a property’s back lot or panels on the roof are fine to help power a residence. As for industrial-scale generation, there are plenty of sites around the country they believe would be perfect, including industrially zoned land, brownfields and landfills.
Those aren’t the types of lands and sites where EDF is proposing to install Ridge View Solar though.
“We’re talking about 2,000 acres of solar panels and another 1,000 acres of transmission lines and this is just a little town,” Michael Outten said.
Outten ran for town supervisor as a write-in candidate on an anti-Ridge View Solar platform. In the November 2019 election, he lost by 98 votes.
After the election, he and Barbara founded the Coalition to Protect Our Rural Communities, envisioning it as the start of a statewide coalition of grassroots groups representing small towns like Hartland.
EDF’s proposal is driven by “money and politics” and it seeks to “annihilate all of Western New York, upstate New York, with solar panels,” Outten charged.
The main points of contention over solar arrays involve farming and hunting rights, according to both Outten and Vizcarra.
Vizcarra said most farmers rent rather than own land and when that land is rented for solar arrays, it’s not available for other agricultural uses. Hunters face a similar situation, he acknowledged, while waving off both types of loss as “inconveniences.”
“Part of it is going to the solar, so they have to find someplace else to rent, but there’s not like a shortage of land around here,” Vizcarra said. “These people don’t own the land, and that’s really the long and short of it. They’re not in on the deal, so they have to adjust.”
The Outtens, and CPORC, however, have dug in, covering topics beyond farming and hunting rights, to include safety and health of neighbors and community affected by large solar projects. One of those safety issues has to do with battery storage of electricity generated from solar farms, one of which would be set up with each array.
“Those battery containers are eight-foot-high by eight-foot-wide by 40-feet long. They’re filled with lithium ion batteries and it’s stored energy, up to 20 megawatts of stored, captive energy, which is equivalent to 17 tons of dynamite,” Michael Outten said.
Mindi Vizcarra said the information she received from EDF indicated that such battery storage units would be placed next to where the power would be put on the grid, not on her land, and also well away from the highway. She said a storage unit would not necessarily even be used unless the solar arrays generate more electricity than can be put on the grid safely. She recommended looking at EDF’s FAQ page at www.ridgeviewsolar.com.
The Outtens’ coalition has distributed a letter to Hartland residents, outlining their concerns about Ridge View Solar, along with a petition that residents can sign and send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re being contacted by people across the state and organizing them to give everybody their voice,” Barbara Outten said.
Outten said she had asked the Hartland town board several times how many petitions it would take to kick EDF out of town, but was given no definite answer. Later, she said it would take an actual majority of the townspeople signing petitions to bring the board around to the coalition’s side, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 petitions in a town with a population of about 4,000.
Our town (board) is not listening,” she said. “It would take 1,500 petitions to get them to listen to us.”