ALBANY – Large-scale solar and wind projects would be subject to a dramatically new permitting process controlled only by the Cuomo administration – a plan developers say would cut by years the time to it takes for large renewable energy facilities to be approved in New York.
Local government officials, however, say it will sharply reduce the role communities now play in the process for siting larger energy projects.
“What little opportunity we have to have any say in the matter is completely taken away," said Wright Ellis, supervisor of the Town of Cambria, where a solar project on 900 acres called Bear Ridge has been a controversial fight for nearly two years.
“I’m very concerned because, traditionally, land use has been the province of the local government. … This just cancels that out completely," Ellis said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants his economic development agency to create a new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting to handle permitting procedures for big solar and wind projects, though there appears to be opportunities for some smaller projects, such as those known as “community solar," to bypass local government oversight and go directly to Albany for needed approvals.
The stated goal of the governor, in new amendments released Friday to his 2020 state budget plan, is to streamline the siting process and encourage more utility-size solar and wind developments in order for the state to meet self-imposed greenhouse gas emission decreases in the coming decades.
Industry executives believe the Cuomo administration – by tapping its economic development agency instead of others that already have energy-related portfolios – is signaling an interest in building mega-solar facilities on state-owned land that could be operated by private companies.
“We think it’s a boon to the industry and a boon to upstate New York," said Jack Honor, project development manager at EDF Renewables, a subsidiary of a French company that is seeking to build the state’s largest solar project – across 2,500 acres – in Sardinia and Concord. It also has a solar project planned in Niagara County.
The solar executive said “it’s a likely scenario" that EDF would pursue a single state approval – if Cuomo’s plan is approved in the budget in March – instead of the current local process. It’s a path that could reduce the permitting process for such projects from about three years to a mandatory one-year period under the Cuomo proposal. Projects not getting an answer in 365 days by the state would become automatically approved.
Local government officials across the state are fuming that Cuomo wants to undercut their authority over energy projects that occur in cities, towns and villages. Localities now decide smaller energy-producing solar and wind development plans. Large energy projects that generate 25 megawatts or more are considered by a panel composed of five state and two local government officials, though officials in Albany are known for delaying selection of those local appointees. All local say on those larger projects would cease under the new Cuomo plan.
"You're basically saying local laws don't matter. Local zoning doesn't matter. There is no local input and the state is going to decide where these projects to me. It's incredible to me. ... This is just the definition of big government and what's wrong with one-party rule in this state," State Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, said of the Cuomo plan.
Gerry Geist, executive director of the Association of Towns of the State of New York, said local governments were taken by surprise that Cuomo would insert such a major energy policy change into a set of budget amendments instead of the main fiscal plan that was unveiled in January. Legislative hearings that would have taken testimony on the idea have ended and Cuomo and lawmakers are now entering the closed-door negotiation part of budget talks.
“Towns have always supported clean energy and efforts to bring new types of renewable energy sources to our communities. But we’re also very conscious of our duty to protect the public health and safety and we must be full participants in that process," he said.
Geist said the Cuomo administration provided no information about why the current process is not working and drafted what he called an “intentionally vague” new way to site such renewable energy facilities.
“We feel that this is a real broadside against local governments," he said.
The new Cuomo proposal is based on what the administration says is a need to update the current siting process used for electricity generating facilities. It creates a new permitting process office within the Department of Economic Development to ensure that permitting decisions “are predictable, responsible and delivered on pace” to help the state meet its long-term reduction of fossil-fuel produced energy, according to the Cuomo administration. Localities will have what the administration says is “an opportunity to advise” the new state office.
The new plan, contained in budget amendments released last Friday afternoon by Cuomo, say that “general” opposition to placement of solar and wind facilities in a community will not be considered but that “substantive and significant” issues that require adjudication will be subject to a public hearing.
Honor, the solar company executive, said the siting process would be more standardized for renewable energy firms and localities in a host of areas, including how payment in lieu of taxes arrangements are made for such energy projects. “It’s an improvement on the process," he said.
In documents promoting the initiative, the Cuomo administration uses the term “accelerates” to describe the impact on future approvals for renewable energy facilities. It calls the plan the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act. Cuomo has a plan to have a zero-carbon emissions electricity sector by 2040.
Some environmental groups are still studying the new siting proposal.
One environmentalist, Walter Huang, an Ithaca resident who was a leader in the effort that led to a state ban on fracking in 2014, is trying to build support for a fledgling plan to have the state spend $2 billion on retrofitting public and private buildings to make them more energy efficient; in a recent video, Huang said only 4% of New York’s energy comes from solar and wind after decades of state investments and that climate change activists need a “Plan B” to more immediately reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels that don’t undermine future development of wind and solar.
The New York State Conference of Mayors, which represents city and village officials, added its concerns about Cuomo's plan, saying that it would lead to "no meaningful role for local governments as representatives of their communities" in siting decisions for solar and wind projects.