Clean energy projects point the way to renewable energy economy for WNY - The Buffalo News

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Clean energy projects point the way to renewable energy economy for WNY

The symbolism is inescapable: A pair of projects representing our green energy future are being built on the graveyards of our industrial past.

The newest proposal, called Steel Sun, would turn brownfields into one of the largest solar farms in New York State, according to city and project officials.

This exciting development would transform about 25 acres of the enormous former Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna into a high-tech energy producer with the installation of 13,000 solar panels. The project would be near another source of renewable energy, Steel Winds, with its 14 wind turbines on the Hamburg and Lackawanna waterfront.

Installation of the ground-mounted solar panels is expected to start by this fall, with completion by year’s end. Lackawanna officials are understandably enthusiastic about trading brownfields for greenfields. But they are hardly alone in a renewable energy endeavor.

Work is under way at the RiverBend site along the Buffalo River in South Buffalo, where one of the world’s biggest solar panel factories – and a keystone in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative – is to be constructed.

That project became bigger and more exciting with the mid-June announcement that SolarCity, the nation’s largest installer of residential solar panels, was acquiring solar panel maker Silevo, which had planned to occupy most of the first 275,000-square-foot building in the complex. SolarCity wants the Buffalo factory to have five times the capacity that Silevo envisioned. So the state and SolarCity went back to the drawing board to upsize the factory. Another California-based company, LED manufacturer Soraa, is also expected to move into the RiverBend complex to take advantage of state support of high-tech research and manufacturing.

The 88-acre clean energy hub at RiverBend is being built on the old Republic Steel site, giving another brownfield a new lease on life.

The renewable energy industry that is taking shape here is impressive. And size matters.

Most of the renewable energy projects in Western New York, with the exception of some wind farms, have not been of the scale that makes a truly significant contribution to the energy system. An exception was the University at Buffalo’s Solar Strand installation at the North Campus. There, 3,200 solar panels generate about 0.75 megawatts of power. Steel Sun in Lackawanna will generate 4 megawatts. That is still less than enough to power 1,000 homes, but it suggests possibilities for the future.

The former Bethleham site spans 1,100 acres and is owned by Tecumseh Redevelopment Inc. Tecumseh officials said the success of Steel Winds paved the way for the solar installation. BQ Energy proposed Steel Sun, and received good news when Lackawanna’s Planning Board recommended approval of a zoning change to allow use of solar panels on the parcel.

Bethlehem closed more than 30 years ago, but some buildings still stand and contaminants remain on site. Robert Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, said you’re not going to grow food there or do much else but you can move from one industrial use to another quite comfortably and effectively.

The projects will benefit the environment while boosting the economy.

SolarCity, as an example, is now projected to provide well over 1,000 jobs, in contrast to the 475 initially forecast for Silevo. Soraa is expected to create more than 300 jobs and Steel Sun will also bring some green energy jobs.

The cost per watt of power in solar applications has dropped, and with each drop it becomes more commercially viable. The steady transformation from brownfield to green energy is creating an economic engine for the region.

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