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Niagara County Legislature to negotiate contract for solar panels

LOCKPORT – As some legislators called for making local hiring a requirement of the project, the Niagara County Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to begin negotiations with an Amherst company for a giant solar power project.

Solar Liberty Energy Systems will have the sole right to negotiate a contract with the county to sell electricity from three huge solar arrays to be constructed on county property the company will lease. State solar power incentive programs give the county a chance to save as much as $4.75 million on its utility bills over the next 20 years, while Solar Liberty stands to cash in on state incentives as well as federal tax credits.

The Legislature spent nearly a half hour in closed session after voices were raised in favor of a local hiring requirement.

While Legislator Richard L. Andres Jr., R-North Tonawanda, called for a study of a project labor agreement, Legislator Mark J. Grozio, D-Niagara Falls, said the county should simply include the requirement in the resolution authorizing the negotiations. That would have made local hiring mandatory.

Assistant County Attorney R. Thomas Burgasser said the county should not state its bargaining positions publicly and urged a closed session. Legislators then debated the topic outside public view. After the doors were opened, Grozio dropped his amendment and no mention of the local hiring issue was made in the final version of the resolution.

Andres and County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said the terms of the eventual contract with Solar Liberty will have to come back for another Legislature vote.

“We’ll let the negotiations go,” Grozio said. But he insisted that providing jobs for Niagara County residents was a key to the project.

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, insisted that a previously adopted county policy called for a study of a labor agreement on any project worth more than $1.5 million. But Joerg said he doesn’t think that applies to this deal because the county isn’t building anything; it’s making sites available and leasing the solar arrays from Solar Energy.

Earlier Tuesday, Rob Gauchat, vice president of sales and operations for Solar Liberty, said the Erie County-based company has a staff of 70 workers to install solar panels, but he said on a job this size, more might be needed and they could be from Niagara County. “Being a local company, we provide local labor,” he said.

The county will lease three sites for the solar arrays, one of which will be mounted atop a county landfill in Lockport. The others will be installed at the Sewer District treatment plant in Wheatfield and in a field on Junction Road in Cambria.

Each site is to generate about 1.8 megawatts of electricity, which will be sold into the state power grid. Gauchat said none of it will be directly wired to any county building, but the county will be able to assign the power credits it will receive from NYSEG and National Grid to any of its electric bills.

Dawn M. Timm, the county environmental science director, warned legislators Monday that there is a risk of the county having to pay the difference if the market-driven value of the credits falls below the cost of the electricity. But Gauchat said there’s little need to worry.

“The cost of electricity would have to drop 40 percent for that to happen,” he said.

The solar arrays will be huge. Gauchat said it takes 820 solar panels to cover an acre of land, and that produces only 250 kilowatts of electricity. That means it will take more than seven acres of panels to generate the 1.8 megawatts at each site. Work can begin during the winter and will take six to eight months, Gauchat said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com