GASPORT — United Solar Energy Supporters is a “grassroots group of local families, landowners, farmers, students, businesses, skilled trades and environmentalists who want to support, grow and educate on the value of harvesting sunshine to produce emissions free electricity.”
At least that’s what they write on their Facebook page.
Hartland-based dairy farmer Jeremy Verratti helped form USES two months ago and works with a variety of people in the green energy field from across the state, including New York for Clean Power advocates. He said there is a core group of about 20 people working on the local project, called SUHN (Supporters United Hartland Newfane) that affects his land in Hartland.
Verratti is one of the landowners who wants to do business with EDF Renewables, which is proposing Ridge View Solar Energy Center, a 1,500-acre, 350-megawatt solar power project in the neighboring towns of Hartland and Newfane.
“We’re trying to get an unbiased view and trying to get independent experts to attempt to educate,” Verratti said.
USES will start its education campaign through a series of webinars where experts on electrical grids and battery storage will speak. The first webinar is slated for 10 a.m. to noon Saturday March 28. Links to the webinar will be placed on the website usesny.org and Facebook @UnitedSolarEnergySupporters. Verratti noted the original public meeting was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
EDF approached Verratti and other landowners around March 2019 to inquire about their interest in leasing acreage for solar arrays. One of those landowners was Don Bucholz.
“I have a comparably small property,” Bucholz said. “We have about 34 acres. Some of it’s in vineyards, some of it’s in fruits and vegetables.”
Bucholz is one of the major contributors of information to USES and said he’s been trying to bring forward articles on the risks of solar farming, effects on property values, and other independent resources about solar farming. He is also a proponent of pollination and said if the project goes through, he will be able to dedicate 10 to 12 acres to pollinators while a solar farm looms over it.
“When I find a site that has information, I try to go at least three levels down so I can understand just what their references are and where did they come from, and who they were funded by,” he said, also noting he prefers university and academia articles on the issue.
Bucholz explained some of the webinars will focus on “basic solar technology facts,” as presented by Dr. Richard Perez of the University of Albany, while others will touch upon subjects such as battery storage as presented by Sudipta Lahiri of DNVGL, a risk management and quality assurance firm that works with green energy projects, as well as with the gas and oil industries.
“And how does the grid work?” Bucholz said. “There’s been the contention that all the energy will go to New York (City) and that’s not necessarily the case. It’s very much like a river and anybody that wants to drink from that river as it flows down the hill, takes a little water from it. Maybe some of that water will reach New York, but according to my understanding as an engineer, most of the energy used would be near the generating location.”
At first, Verratti said, he didn’t realize EDF’s proposition would be so controversial, but when opposition started to materialize this past September, he started to look into the issues, and what he found led him to conclude he would continue talking to EDF.
“One of the things I’ve said is that when you’re dealing with a coal plant, despite the fact that coal produces a lot of energy, every day you have to go and dig that coal out of the ground, put it on a railcar, take it up to the plant and burn it,” Verratti said. “The beauty with solar is the sun comes up every morning. You put (arrays) up in the field, and yes, year after year there is a small efficiency drop-off, but it’s basically a giant computer chip that stands stagnantly in a field on a bunch of posts, and it collects energy.”
As opposition to Ridge View rose, Verratti started going to town meetings and said he heard some statements that he didn’t think were “particularly true.” Some of the key points he heard from those opposing Ridge View were concerns about farming and hunting restrictions.
“Hunting is a big deal,” he said. “If you say somebody can’t hunt within a 1,000 feet of the panels, or 500 feet of the panels, that better be true. This group (USES) has asked every organization around, the DEC, some of the state people, the town people and everybody says it’s false.”
Verratti also said there are local businesses supporting the Ridge View project, but the owners have been muted by the “contentious” discussion and are afraid to speak out.
The Hartland town board recently approved a resolution stating the town’s opposition to Article 23 as a power grab by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to force compliance with clean energy targets embraced by the state. The proposed amendment to utility siting law would take away the rights of municipalities to decide where and how large-scale utilities can be placed.
The board’s opposition to Article 23 does not mean it’s opposed to green energy generation in the town, however, town Supervisor Ross Annable said.
“We don’t want the governor’s proposal to take away our home rule,” he said. “We’re not at a stage to support or oppose (Ridge View Solar Energy Center). We’re in a learning process. I know people are anxious for us to make a choice, but ... there’s a lot we need to learn about.”
According to Verratti, more than 30 landowners in Hartland and Newfane are signed up with EDF by Memorandum of Understanding or lease.
“We’re on an MOU, and we’re hoping to sign a lease very quickly,” he said.
More information can be found at usesny.org.