COPAKE—Hecate Energy’s proposed 60 megawatt Shepherd’s Run Solar Farm is now on the fast track to approval and opponents are enraged.
Hecate, headquartered in Chicago, is a developer of solar farms, wind farms, and energy storage projects.
The developer is currently applying for a project that calls for the installation of 200,000 solar panels seated on steel-tracking mounts that follow the sun throughout the day. The panels would physically occupy 280 acres of a total 360-acre fenced-in project area and be situated in four main multi-acre arrays on both sides of state Route 23 and county Route 7 in the rural, residential Copake hamlet of Craryville adjacent to the Taconic Hills Central School and near the Copake Lake community.
Most of the land where the facility would be located is currently in agriculture.
The industrial-scale project is not permitted under Copake’s zoning law, yet it is moving forward because Hecate bypassed local law and sought site approval from the New York State Siting Board, under procedures in Article 10 of the Public Service Law.
In an announcement last week, Hecate said it has transferred its project application from Article 10 to “the state’s new siting process for renewable energy projects, known as ‘94-c’ for the section of state Executive Law that established the new system, [and] sets the standards and conditions for siting, design, construction, operation and permitting that Shepherd’s Run will be required to follow.”
Differences between the Article 10 process and 94-c are discussed in an April 3, 2020 story in The National Law Review titled, “New York State Legislature Passes Renewable Energy Siting Law In Step Toward Meeting Ambitious Renewable Energy Mandates.” (https://www.natlawreview.com/article/new-york-state-legislature-passes-renewable-energy-siting-law-step-toward-meeting) The story says the “new law aspires to site renewable projects in a timelier and more efficient manner.”
Changes from Article 10 “provide additional recognition of the role of local governments and citizens affected by renewable siting, and omit the attempt to standardize local property tax assessments and agreements for payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT).”
The new law, which “may be viewed as favorable by renewable energy developers,” also “establishes fast-track siting for large renewable projects of 25 MW and above, requiring that a final siting decision must be issued within one year of a complete application,” according to the story.
Hecate’s April 15 press release explains that “the new law established the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) to consolidate review and permitting of major renewable energy facilities in a single forum. ORES will take into consideration applicable and substantive local laws, public health and safety, environmental, and socioeconomic factors during the permit process. In working with ORES, Hecate’s application will not be deemed complete without proof of consultation with the Copake community.”
Though the switch was not unexpected, the news sparked angry reaction from Copake town officials and opponents.
“Hecate’s announcement that it is switching to 94-c is more bad news for Copake,” Copake Town Supervisor Jeanne E. Mettler said in a press release.
“Now Hecate has jumped from Article 10 which had little regard for local zoning to 94-c which is geared to totally ignore local laws in favor of a quick state rubberstamping for solar projects,” she said.
The switch is “especially disturbing” to the town since New York State exempted 94-c from the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) in the 2021 budget.
Citing the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website, the Copake release says SEQRA “requires all state and local government agencies to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors during discretionary decision-making. This means these agencies must assess the environmental significance of all actions they have discretion to approve, fund or directly undertake.”
“It is stunning to think that NYS has given the green light to developers by exempting them from the rigorous standards which the state requires in every other application. It is no surprise that Hecate has decided to switch horses mid-stream. This means not only can it ignore Copake’s laws, but it can do so without considering the impact to prime farmland, natural resources, wildlife or wildlife habitat,” Supervisor Mettler said in the release.
But Hecate Energy Project Developer Alex Campbell doesn’t see the switch to 94-c the same way, noting, “The transfer to the state’s new comprehensive siting and permitting process ensures a rigorous and responsible environmental review process. It will also help provide real benefits and safeguard input opportunities for the local community.”
Weighing in against the Hecate switch is Darin Johnson, a representative with Sensible Solar for Rural New York (www.sensiblesolarny.org), a coalition of concerned Columbia County citizens in strong opposition to the Shepherd’s Run project. In an April 16 statement, Mr. Johnson said, “The thinly veiled smoked screen has cleared, and Hecate Energy has emerged as the greedy, out-of-state company with no care, regard or respect for our rural community. Despite the empty words and gestures over the past year, we were hopeful. But now Hecate Energy has blown past any sincere opportunity to enter into discussions with the Town and its people. They are making the concerted choice to further by-pass the community by electing to engage in an expedited process that provides no balance of power to the local community disrupted by the project.”
Also speaking out in the Sensible Solar statement is State Senator Daphne Jordan (R-43rd) who said, she has stood with Copake citizens and officials for months “in expressing my many serious concerns about Hecate Energy’s proposed massive project and its potential negative impact on the Town’s special quality of life.”
Her criticisms of the project include: its failure to respect and recognize local Home Rule and include proper protection provisions for local farmland.
She said Hecate Energy has not committed to proposing and assessing alternative facility layouts; its proposed project area shows five times more land area than was needed, and the developer has shown a “lack of a clear commitment to evaluating the project’s expected impact on the community’s character and consistency with the planning objectives set forth in the local comprehensive and farmland protection plans.”
Ms. Jordan said she “urged the NYS Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment to deny Hecate Energy a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need” in her official public comment.
Hecate does have supporters, among them is Friends of Columbia Solar (FOCS) (www.friendsofcolumbiasolar.org). Co-chair of this Columbia County solar advocacy group, Dan Haas is quoted in the Hecate press release as saying: “Solar power will be crucial in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy and meeting New York’s aggressive [Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act] CLCPA mandate of 70% renewable electricity by 2030. FOCS is excited to support this solar project in Copake. Hecate Energy has worked extensively to accommodate the needs of the community while still delivering on the clean energy we need to avoid a climate catastrophe.”
Recognizing climate change as an existential threat, Copake’s Deputy Supervisor Richard Wolf, who has been the town’s point person on the Hecate application, said in the town’s release, “The Town Board… applauds the state’s commitment to addressing that threat. But Copake is only one of 932 towns in this state. The governor’s goal of achieving 70% of renewable energy could be reached if each town supplied 6.5 megawatts of renewable energy. It is wrong to force Copake to shoulder 10 times its fair share.
“94-c, the SEQRA exemption, and the tax change,” Mr. Wolf said, “completes Albany’s trifecta of big wins for mega-developers—all to the detriment of upstate, rural towns like Copake.
“All rural towns in New York State should take heed,” he concluded.
In his monthly update on the Hecate project Mr. Wolf reported to the Town Board April 8 that Hecate plans to reduce the size of its project footprint further, though not its capacity, which will remain at 60 megawatts.
In January Hecate announced that it would withdraw the battery storage component from its proposal. That disclosure came on the heels of a December 2020 announcement during a Hecate virtual informational open house that it will reduce the project’s footprint by more than 25% from 500-acres to 360-acres.
Previously the developer said its facility would occupy 500-acres of a 900-acre project area.
The next project size reduction announcement is expected when Hecate hosts its third virtual Zoom informational open house and meeting April 28 from 1 to 3 p.m. and/or 5 to 7 p.m. to answer questions, provide updates and for general discussion of the project. According to Hecate, “the open house will have an additional focus surrounding visual improvements.” A meeting invitation and presentation slides can be found at www.ShepherdsRunSolar.com/open-house.
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