Renewable Energy Act panned by local activists

The fight for the Town of Hartland's place in the state's energy platform hit another milestone as the New York State budget was approved in the wee hours on April 3. One of the budget bills contained The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, also known as the Renewable Energy Act, which will allow companies like EDF Renewables to go through a new Office of Siting created by the Department of State to site their solar farms on consenting farmers' land.

Opponents of the act included State Sen. Robert Ortt, 144th district Assembly Member Michael Norris and 145th district Assembly Member Angelo Morinello, all of whom voted down the entire budget, which consisted of eight bills.

Norris said on the floor of the Assembly, "It is critically important to the character of that community for them (local residents) to determine whether or not they want to have a massive, large wind turbine factory in their community, or a massive solar energy facility in their community.

"The locals need to have a voice, a substantial voice. This bill takes away from the individuals to serve on the local siting board. It just tramples on local control."

Ortt, likewise, made a statement by email:

"... Although language requiring four public hearings for siting stands, a 60-day mandatory public comment period after a project's application submission, and required public hearings should the projects conflict with local ordinance laws was added to the legislation, the lack of local representation on the approval of these energy projects is still a grave concern. The Department of State still has the ability to ignore these local concerns," he said.

After the budget was passed, Morinello said within the budget bills there were "poison pills," one of which was the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act.

"You have to take a stand on the people's right to have a say-so in their government," he said.

Hartland town Supervisor Ross Annable said his municipality will continue with its plans to find the truth regarding what types of risks solar farms carry. In Hartland, a grassroots group that is staunchly opposed to EDF's proposal has been encouraging town residents to sign a petition against the project, of which they've submitted to the Town Board.

"We're still going to go ahead with trying to ascertain all the issues that have come up and get some independent information and put together some kind of independent report," Annable said. "I talked to some people at SUNY to find somebody that would be independent that we would be able to utilize. So, we're still looking to do that."

Barbara Outten, a leader of the Coalition to Protect Our Rural Communities (CPORC), said during the pandemic she is mostly farming, but is not letting industrial solar fall off her radar.

"We are going to keep fighting 'til the bitter end," she said. "We are not going to give up, we're in it to fight as effectively as possible."

On the other side, Jeremy Verratti, a landowner looking to do business with EDF and the founder of United Solar Energy Supporters, said he'd have to look at the text of the Renewable Energy Act before he commented on it.

"As long as we're able to, we're going to continue to educate," he said. "Regardless of whether we're in an Article 23 or Article 10 process, our goal is to educate people because we feel that people who know about it are going to like it and we think it's going to be good for the whole town."

According to Kate Kremer, vice president of Save Ontario Shores, the Barker/Lyndonville-based grassroots group opposed to Apex Clean Energy's Lighthouse Wind farm proposal, the Office of Siting under the Department of State will speed up processing of applications for large green energy projects by creating standards that are not subject to change despite public outcry.

"Let's say for instance noise. They're going to set noise standards so individual communities will not be able to come in and say, 'We think the noise standards should be this.' They're going to set standards," she said.

Public hearings on the proposed standards will be held in four places around the state on different dates. Any chance to bring local input to the fore will have to be at one of those hearings, Kremer said. 

Charles Fendt, an adviser to CPORC and a former automation engineer, said of the new siting rules, "One thing this will do is wake people up to what's happening in their back yards. If there's a silver lining to this, maybe that's it."

"If you get enough voters to raise up enough of a stink, it's about the only way the politicians in Albany will hear you," he said.

Other provisions of the Renewable Energy Act include the revamping, if needed, of local transmission infrastructure. The act dictates any work needed on those premises will be ensured by action of the state.

Also, for each siting application will come a fee — $1,000 per 1,000 kilowatts — to be deposited into an account for the participation of "community intervenors" and "local agencies" in any public comment periods on a proposed project.

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