WESTTOWN — A new crop sprouted from fallow fields on both sides of County Route 1 over eight months last year: some 16,000 silicon solar panels, laid out in row upon row in the heart of what once was a prime dairy farming area.
Today, those panels are catching the sun’s rays to produce 5.29 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the homes of 800 Orange and Rockland customers who subscribed to Clearway Community Solar — the company that built the installation — and now get a reduction on their monthly bills as a result.
Clearway’s array in the Town of Minisink is one of the largest community solar farms operating in New York, and among the first shared solar projects of that kind to be completed out of dozens that are planned in the Hudson Valley and Catskills.
Four have begun operating and 65 more are in development in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, according to data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. All told, those current and future installations will feature almost 700,000 solar panels and generate 229 megawatts of combined power — enough to serve more than 34,000 homes.
For comparison, that equals more than a third of the production capacity of Valley Energy Center, the natural gas-fired power plant that began operating in Wawayanda last year.
More community-solar projects are poised to start pumping electricity into the grid soon.
Clearway, for example, is courting subscribers for a 2.8-megawatt installation on Crans Mill Road in Crawford, which will serve about 430 customers.
And on Thursday, two rival companies — PowerMarket and Abundant Efficiency — announced that their 5-megawatt, 16,000-panel solar farm in New Windsor was nearly done, and would produce enough power for 750 homes.
The application surge began in 2016 after the state adopted rules allowing the creation of solar installations with multiple users. For consumers, the projects now coming to fruition offer an opportunity to cut their electricity bills and go solar without getting panels on their roof, something some homeowners can’t or are reluctant to do.
For state officials, the coming solar boom will help tilt New York’s energy supply away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources to help arrest climate change. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an acceleration of the state’s target in January, saying it would aim by 2030 to get 70 percent of New York’s electricity from renewable sources, instead of 50 percent. The new goals included having 6,000 megawatts of distributed solar power by 2025.
Neighbor, tax concerns
Among the places with multiple solar projects is Delaware, a town of 2,700 in northwestern Sullivan County that abuts the Delaware River. It has one solar farm in operation and two more in the works, all proposed by Delaware River Solar — a company that is also planning solar farms in Liberty, Thompson, Tusten and Fallsburg, according to NYSERDA’s records.
The completed Delaware project is a 2.8-megawatt installation that the developer originally planned for Baer Road but shifted a short distance away after neighbors strongly opposed the location.
“It really got people worked up,” Delaware Supervisor Edward Sykes said last week, praising the developer for meeting with neighbors and listening to their concerns. “They just moved it over the hill so it couldn’t be seen.”
Sykes had his own misgivings at first: a 15-year tax exemption the state has offered property owners to help make community solar farms economically viable. Local governments and school districts can vote to refuse those exemptions, but what Delaware did was assent to a reduced-tax plan developed by the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency in the form of what is known as a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT agreement.
Sykes said he was satisfied with that arrangement, and welcomed the expansion of solar energy for consumers.
In addition to the property-tax exemptions, NYSERDA gives solar developers grants to spur the projects — around $60 million in total for the community solar farms built or planned in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan. The installation near Baer Road in the Town of Delaware, for example, was promised $1.3 million in state support for a $4.9 million project, according to NYSERDA.
Each installation has its own set of subscribers, and is linked to the electric utility serving the area in which it’s located. For the Clearway projects in Minisink and Crawford, that means Orange and Rockland. Customers throughout O&R’s service area could subscribe to either solar farm, however far they live from them, until its capacity is reached — as the Minisink project has done.
Clearway customers subscribe for 20 years, paying the company a monthly subscription fee while getting a credit on their O&R bills that is expected to give them a net savings. In one illustration in ads and mailings for its Crawford solar farm, the company estimates that customers who pay $301 to $500 per month for electricity would save $120 to $170 a year. (Subscribers who move can transfer their subscription if they remain in O&R territory; otherwise, the company would try to find a replacement customer.)
Solar farm vs. traditional farm
Much of the region’s planned solar farms are in Orange County, which has 40 projects in development or completed. Planning Commissioner David Church attributes that boom to the availability of relatively affordable land and a power-grid infrastructure, and the county’s position on the exurban outskirts of the New York metro area, with its huge electricity demand.
Though he’s enthusiastic about the solar proliferation, one concern for Church and his department is ensuring that the county, which still has a major agricultural industry, doesn’t lose some of its best farmland to solar development.
He serves on the county’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, which he said had issued guidelines that balanced the conservation interests with farm owners’ financial needs by discouraging solar projects strictly on prime agricultural soil. That targeted protection effort, he said, is something that towns can readily codify in their zoning through soil mapping.
In the case of Clearway’s solar farm on County Route 1 in Minisink, the property had once been used to grow corn but was not in active use when Clearway leased it. Dan Hendrick, the company’s head of external affairs, pointed to that as an illustration of how community solar projects can help farmers: “They provide a steady, predictable and long-term form of income to farmers whose full acreage may not be able to generate the income it once did.”
Scenic Hudson, the regional non-profit dedicated to land conservation and Hudson River protection, also has worked to define and promote the policy balance between encouraging more solar power while saving prime farmland.
They don’t have to be competing interests, argued Audrey Friedrichsen, a land use and environmental advocacy attorney for the Poughkeepsie-based group. The trick, she said, is steering solar development away from prime agricultural soils, wetlands and places where they might disrupt viewsheds and trigger conflicts.
Scenic Hudson has held a symposium on that topic and worked to dispel misperceptions about solar energy that sometimes fuel opposition, Friedrichsen said. In her experience, she said, reactions from neighbors to the prospect of having a solar farm near their houses have varied – not all of them negative — as projects have cropped up in the region.
“It’s sort of in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “For some of us, solar panels are a sign of hope.”