Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act Implications of Trelina Solar Project Approval

On November 30, 2021 the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment (Siting Board) granted approval to Trelina Solar Energy Center, LLC (Trelina) to build and operate an 80-megawatt solar farm in the Town of Waterloo, Seneca County.   It is proof positive that the overriding driver of any environmental decision in New York State is support of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act). 

I have written extensively on implementation of the Climate Act because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy outstrip available technology such that it will adversely affect reliability and affordability, risk safety and affect lifestyles, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change, and cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented.   The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.

Trelina Solar Project

The Trelina Solar Project is an 80 megawatt (MW) solar farm in the Town of Waterloo, Seneca County, New York.  The developer, NextEra Energy Resources, has 22 projects in New York.  “It operates primarily as a wholesale power generator, providing power and environmental attributes to utilities, retail electricity providers, power cooperatives, municipal electric providers and large industrial companies. It owns and operates more than 21,000 megawatts of generating assets located primarily in 36 states and Canada as of year-end 2018.” 

According to the press release, “This solar farm and other renewable energy projects currently under development are vital to meet the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s aggressive carbon reduction and clean energy targets to combat climate change,” said Siting Board Chair Rory M. Christian. “The Trelina solar farm will benefit all New Yorkers by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, boosting clean-energy investment, creating clean-energy jobs, and improving our environment.”

The press release touts the benefits of the project. 

According to the developer, the project construction will employ between 85 and 128 construction workers, including onsite labor, electricians, equipment operators, construction managers, and foreperson jobs. Projections for direct local expenditures during project development and construction were approximately $16 million, with construction payroll being the highest at approximately $12.6 million.

Up to 90 percent of the total payroll is expected to be paid to workers in the region. In addition, there will be opportunities for local businesses to supply materials to support construction of the project, and service industry businesses such as hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues will benefit from an increase in worker activity throughout construction.

The solar farm will result in annual payments to local landowners in association with the lease and easement agreements. Payments over 30 years are estimated to total $64.9 million. The facility will be located on 418 acres within a 1,067-acre project area privately leased or purchased land. The solar farm is expected to begin commercial operation in 2022.

During the operation of the project, the developer expects to spend approximately $485,059 in total direct annual expenditures. Trelina expects expenditures for materials and equipment costs will be spent locally. The developer expects that agreements with the town, county and local school districts will provide approximately $10.7 million in additional benefits.

According to the press release, the Siting Board’s decision “follows a detailed review and robust public participation process to ensure that the solar farm meets or exceeds all siting requirements”.  However, upon further review those claims ring hollow.

Agricultural Impacts

Careful reading of the press release reveals the fact that agriculture is not mentioned once.  That is curious because this area is one of the more productive areas of farmland in the state.  That piqued my interest enough to look at the application documentation in more detail.

On April 16, 2021, Michael Saviola, an Associate Environmental Analyst with the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (“Department”) submitted his prepared testimony on the Trelina Solar Project application.  His testimony is very interesting. After describing his background, experience and job responsibilities, his testimony stated that the purpose of his review and evaluation of the application was (Page 4, Line 18):

To determine the nature and extent of potential impacts of the proposed Project on agricultural land. More specifically, to determine if the Project as proposed follows the Department’s Guidelines for Agricultural Mitigation for Solar Energy Projects. The Department strives to minimize the permanent conversion of productive agricultural lands, and where not possible, offers technical assistance to reduce and/or mitigate impacts to agricultural land.

He notes that the Department of Ag and Markets does not have an opinion on the need for utility-scale solar generation but (Page 4, line 23):

The Department discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use. This effort is in accordance with Section 4 of Article 14 of the 2018 New York State Constitution, which provides for the conservation of agricultural lands, as well as NYS Agriculture and Markets Law (AML), Article 25-AA, §300, which more specifically states:

“It is, therefore, the declared policy of the state to conserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural land for production of food and other agricultural products. It is also the declared policy of the state to conserve and protect agricultural lands as valued natural and ecological resources which provide needed open spaces for clean air sheds, as well as for aesthetic purposes.”.

After acknowledging that the Department is aware of the Climate Act and supports the general initiative, the testimony goes on to state (Page 5, line 16):

The Department understands that although the legislative intent of AML supports the preservation of NYS agricultural resources for agricultural purposes, there is currently no law or regulation acting on such intent. Department policies are in place to act on the legislative intent. In past PSL Article 10 cases, the Department has stated its position with respect to policies pertaining to the conversion of agricultural lands, however, Administrative Law Judges decisions in prior Solar cases have not recognized the policy as a requirement for the proceeding. Despite this fact and considering that the Department is a statutory party to this and other proceedings under the PSL, the Department will continue to protest the conversion of agriculture land to a non-agricultural use.

The following section is very interesting on a couple of levels that I will discuss below (Page 6, Line 3):

Prior to large-scale solar development, the Department has not been associated with PSL Article 10 cases which convert large acreages of agricultural lands to non-agricultural uses. Commercial wind generating facilities generally allow for farming activity to continue once the project is in-service. In comparison, the solar industry arguably eliminates the ability to perform normal viable agricultural operations within, and potentially immediately surrounding the facility. This constitutes a permanent conversion to a non-agricultural use. Due to increasing NYS energy goals encouraging renewable energy development, we see no reason facilities will not be upgraded and re-leased to maintain the growing or static renewable energy demand, in this case, 35 years from energization. The Department further asserts that as long as NYS incentives for the development of renewable energy exists, the complete decommissioning of solar electric energy generation, and full resumption to agricultural use is not likely to occur.

The Department recognizes the financial benefits of participating landowners; however, farm operator(s) lease payments are not viewed by the Department as a benefit to agriculture when agricultural crops, livestock and livestock products are downsized or eliminated.

In response to the question “What Department policies that (sic) are subject to the proceeding”, he responded (Line 20, page 6):

As previously mentioned, The Department discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use. However, to support the New York State’s CLCPA initiatives, the Department has developed a siting policy supportive of solar development efforts on agricultural lands if (his emphasis added) the proposed projects are properly sited on lands other than the State’s most productive farmland. The Department’s goal is for projects to limit the conversion of agricultural areas within the Project Areas, to no more than 10% of soils classified by the Department’s NYS Agricultural Land Classification mineral soil groups 1-4, generally Prime Farmland soils, which represent the State’s most productive farmland. Soils classified with the soil groups 5-10 are identified as having soil limitations. The only responsible position the Department can take to stay true to the 7 AML Article 25-AA §300 and to support the NYS CLCPA renewable energy initiative is to ensure the preservation of agricultural areas involving soils classified as soil groups 1-9 for the production for food and fiber, as well as not object to proposed development on lesser productive soils, i.e. agriculture lands comprised on classified mineral soil groups 5-10.

Saviola’s testimony then addressed construction impacts.  That part of the testimony also includes a description of the impact on agriculture of commercial solar infrastructure.  He made recommendations for mitigating impacts during construction. 

The most damning testimony came in response to the question whether the facility layout follows the Department’s Solar Guidelines and does it align with the Department’s siting policy (Line 11, page 11):

In general, access roads should follow field edges and the solar arrays should not be sited in a manner in which agricultural areas become orphaned as described in my testimony above. Additionally, the Department finds the Applications proposed siting is not consistent with the Department’s siting policy because it will occur on more that 10% of active farmland classified as Prime Farmland (Generally, Mineral Soil Groups 1-4) within the proposed limits of disturbance. The Department estimates that greater than 68% of the of the limits of disturbance includes the conversion of farmland classified as Prime Farmland Soil (Mineral Soil Groups 1-4). The Application states that solar panels will cover 325 acres, however areas located outside of fenced areas will likely become fallow or orphaned as a result of screening requirements and setbacks. This will eliminate crop production on much more than 325 acres of agriculture lands for a minimum of 30 years -worth of crop yields from some of the most productive farmland soils in the State. While the Applicant describes the impact to agricultural land and farming, in general, as temporary, a 30-year loss of the production of crops, livestock and livestock products constitutes a permanent conversion to a nonagricultural use. Although a decommissioning plan has been prepared, there is virtually no reasonable assurance that the project will be decommissioned and that the full resumption back to agricultural use will be reestablished.

The testimony includes recommendations for reducing or eliminating agricultural impacts (Line 8, Page 12):

The Department recommends exploring some combination of the following technical mitigation activities to reduce the significance of the agricultural impact within the facility site:

• Reduction in the scope of the Project

• Incorporation of Agricultural Co-utilization

• Density of panels and design changes to reduce the facility footprint

• Alternative siting

The remainder of the testimony addresses issues with engineered drainage features.

Discussion

According to the press release, the Siting Board’s decision “follows a detailed review and robust public participation process to ensure that the solar farm meets or exceeds all siting requirements”.  That statement is demonstrably false. 

The petition for New York Department of Public Service Case Number: 19-F-0366 1001.4 Exhibit 4, Land Use states that the overall Project Area is 1,067 acres and “only approximately 44.4 percent will be used for Project Components within a fenced area of approximately 418 acres to generate 79.5 to 80 MW of renewable energy”.  The Land use exhibit goes on to state:

Additionally, although the Project is sited within mapped Agricultural Districts, the Facility will only occupy 0.3 percent of all lands designated as Agricultural Districts within Seneca County and 9 percent of all lands designated as Agricultural Districts within the Town of Waterloo (Section 4(a)). Finally, of the 474.1 acres of total limits of disturbance proposed, 325.6 acres will occur on land classified as Prime Farmland which is only 4.9 percent of all Prime Farmland within the Town of Waterloo and 0.3% of the Prime Farmland and Farmland of Statewide Importance within Seneca County (Table 4-1 and Sections 4(r) and 4(w)). Further, of those 325.6 acres, only 10.05 acres will be permanently disturbed by racking support poles, access roads, collection (substation, switchyard, inverter pads), and stormwater management structures (filtration basins, rip rap). The remainder will be restored after construction.

Note, however, that the Ag and Markets testimony notes that “The Department’s goal is for projects to limit the conversion of agricultural areas within the Project Areas, to no more than 10% of soils classified by the Department’s NYS Agricultural Land Classification mineral soil groups 1-4, generally Prime Farmland soils, which represent the State’s most productive farmland.”  It also notes that “The Department estimates that greater than 68% of the of the limits of disturbance includes the conversion of farmland classified as Prime Farmland Soil”.  In other words, there is no way that this project meets the Department’s goal.

The application argues that the project only disturbs 4.9% of all the prime farmland in the Town of Waterloo and presumably would argue that means they meet the intent of the Department policy.  The problem with that is there is no master plan for development and no assurances that other more responsibly sited facilities could not be constructed in the Town of Waterloo that would raise the town total over the 10% goal of the Department.

The Ag and Markets testimony also argues against the claims that only 10.05 acres will be permanently disturbed.  The testimony explains that 474.1 acres will be permanently disturbed because “as long as NYS incentives for the development of renewable energy exists, the complete decommissioning of solar electric energy generation, and full resumption to agricultural use is not likely to occur”.

Conclusion

The fact that the Ag and Markets testimony was ignored proves that primary driver of environmental decisions is whether the action comports with the Climate Act.  I have previously described unintended consequences of the Climate Act solar development land rush on agriculture (here and here).  Until I discovered this testimony, I was under the impression that the Department of Ag and Markets was neglecting this issue.  Now, it is apparent that staff for the Department of Ag and Markets are trying to preserve prime agricultural land.  Unfortunately, the Article 10 permitting process is politically driven and the politicians behind the Climate Act are only concerned with the Climate Act agenda. 

I believe that there is a serious problem with Climate Act implementation inasmuch as renewable development is proceeding without an overall strategy to address all the requirements of the Climate Act and protect the environment and affected sectors.  All the currently proposed industrial solar projects are being developed without overall direction and the Article 10 process intended to ensure that all siting requirements are met or exceeded is not providing that protection.  As a result, it is unlikely that all this will work out in the best interests of the state’s agriculture sector, affected communities, or neighbors to the projects.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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