KNOWLEDGE & POWER: How to do solar smart

Jim Shultz

Last week I published a series of three articles in the Union-Sun & Journal about solar power in Niagara County. I began that project for the same reason that I previously researched and wrote about the Lockport school district’s facial recognition cameras: because I believe that choices like these need to be made based on real information and serious analysis. On solar power, the time to do that homework is now, before the contracts are signed and the deals are final.

Solar power is the future and it offers an important opportunity for our communities, but only if we are smart about it. On solar, I think that being smart is about three things.

First, we need to be sure that we put local solar production in the right place, and that means prioritizing brownfields. Unfortunately, we have a good deal of contaminated land here in Niagara County, the leftovers from a century of reckless industry. Before we begin taking a large portion of our agricultural land out of production for 40 years or longer, let’s be sure we are using the plots of land that contamination has made useless. Let’s repurpose those for producing clean energy.

Second, I think it is important that we let our communities decide what kind of solar development is right for them. How much do they want and where? How large should any single field be allowed to be? Is there land that needs to be taken off the table? What is the balance that is right for that community? I understand that this could mean some limitations on the rights of landowners, and that will be controversial. It also means joining together to resist any state effort to force a project or meddle in a community’s financial negotiations with the companies involved. These are decisions that will affect the nature of our communities for decades to come and it seems to me that local choice is critical.

Third, we need to be sure that the solar companies that come here pay communities fairly. To make that happen we need to pay attention. Again, let’s use the proposed solar field on Summit Street here in Lockport as an example. I spoke once more this week with representatives of OYA Solar, the company behind the project, and they were willing to give me more complete numbers than in our first conversation.

Using the company’s calculations of the project’s value, if their solar field were taxed just like any other property in Lockport, its annual tax bill would be $122,680 per year. What the company is seeking instead is a flat payment of $35,000 per year, split between the schools, the city and the county. That is a tax break of 71% that the rest of us don’t get. The company says it also expects to receive federal and state tax subsidies worth about $5 million to help build the project.

Popeyes Chicken and Dollar General are also aiming to expand here in Lockport, and to my knowledge neither of them are asking for a 71% break in school and city taxes. I asked a representative why OYA believes that it should pay so much less. The company says that, unlike homeowners and local businesses, it won’t be using local services such as schools. But property taxes aren’t based on what services we use. Otherwise homeowners without kids would be exempt from school taxes. Our taxes are based on everyone paying fairly according to the value of what they own.

The company says it has already invested $500,000 on consultants and other expenses just to lay the groundwork for the project. It isn’t going to walk away from that sunk investment because our city and school district think we should be paid more than $35,000 per year for a project that the company says will generate nearly $1 million each year in revenue.

When other companies like the Verizon data center have negotiated similar tax-lowering arrangements, the deals have been based on the promise of new jobs and new economic activity. But solar fields don’t create permanent jobs, just a field of quiet panels. The Summit Street project has a lot to offer Lockport, but how do we make sure that it benefits the whole community?

To begin, let’s make sure that we negotiate a financial agreement that is fair and we have a county development office responsible for doing that. Then, let’s have the company pay us what is fair by giving our schools and city a specially discounted price for their electricity. As taxpayers, we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to light our streets and our schools. Getting that cheaper is as good as money in the bank. It also means we would begin the process of becoming a city powered by the sun. It would be a huge win for everyone and a way to make solar power work for everyone.

Solar power is going to be as central to the future as coal and oil have been in the past. Our corner of western New York happens to be sitting in a prime spot and the decisions we make now will last for generations. We have a real opportunity here to do solar smart. Let’s not lose it.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.

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