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State ok’s latest round in solar mega-site

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By DIANE VALDEN

COPAKE—After encountering bumps in the road earlier, Hecate Energy’s Shepherd’s Run mega-sized solar project is moving ahead despite opponents’ long-held objections.

The most recent step forward in the controversial proposal is the issuance of a draft permit by the New York State Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES). This draft permit “for a major renewable energy facility” in Craryville was conveyed October 24.

After ORES issued three prior Notices of Incomplete Application to Hecate since May 2022, Hecate’s application was finally deemed complete August 25.

ORES has one year from the date it declared Hecate’s application complete to decide whether to issue a final permit.

Hecate Energy, a Chicago-based developer of solar and wind facilities and energy storage projects, now has a draft permit to construct a 60-megawatt (MW) solar facility east of the Taconic Hills School District and north of Copake Lake in and around the Copake hamlet of Craryville. Nearly 200,000 solar panels will be erected on a total project footprint of about 267 acres of an 880-acre total facility site. Much of the acreage is prime agricultural land. A school district campus and residential areas border the property.

The industrial-scale project is not permitted under Copake Zoning Law, yet it is advancing in the permitting process because Hecate has bypassed local law and is seeking site approval from ORES under the state’s streamlined siting process for renewable energy projects, known as 94-c.

The draft permit, a 92-page document, available on the ORES website (ores.ny.gov) says that based on ORES’s “comprehensive review of the record…the Office finds and determines that the proposed Solar Facility… avoids, minimizes, or mitigates, to the maximum extent practicable, potential significant adverse environmental impacts of the Facility.”

The permit lists major project components such as: photovoltaic (PV) modules and their rack/support systems; direct current collection lines and communications cables connecting the modules to the inverters; the inverters with their support platforms, control electronics, and step-up transformers; buried alternating current medium voltage collection lines; security fencing and gates around each array of PV modules; landscape plantings; gravel access roads; temporary laydown areas; a new collection substation; and interconnection into the existing 115 kilovolt Craryville Substation.

In a statement provided to The Columbia Paper this week, proponents of the project, Friends of Columbia Solar (FOCS) say, “Now that the state has issued a draft permit for Shepherd’s Run, FOCS is focused on the next steps in the process, which we hope will result in a solar farm that incorporates as many of the Working Group ideas as possible. This coalition solicited and received wide input from the public, and Hecate has already committed to some—but not all—of these steps. The draft permit specifies wildlife-friendly fencing, safeguards for water quality, extensive screening, and plans for combining solar with sheep-raising and apiaries, but we will advocate for inclusion of several other priorities, in particular the idea of incorporating public green space into the project. The Host Benefit Agreement stipulated in the permit will be an opportunity for commitment to all these ideas, one we hope both Hecate and the Town will take advantage of.”

A statement from Sensible Solar for Rural New York, a coalition of concerned citizens in strong opposition to the Shepherd’s Run Solar Project says, “Despite the multitude of issues with the project site which Sensible Solar has been talking about for years, ORES made the decision to issue a draft permit. Why? Because the 94-c process is flawed. ORES’s sole purpose is to issue permits for renewable energy projects in order to meet the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’s (CLCPA) arbitrary greenhouse gas reduction goals according to an unreasonable timeline. The “community” effectively has no say in what happens. The regulations provide for “mitigants” to any issue raised which are essentially “feel good” measures that really don’t mitigate any identified issues. In the meantime, the CLCPA will enrich developers, jeopardize the environment, permanently remove NY State’s valuable farmland, impair electric grid reliability, result in higher costs for electricity, and, in Copake’s case, also forever change the rural landscape and agricultural character of the Town, things we all cherish. To quote NY State Senators Hinchey and Harckham who had strongly urged ORES to work with Hecate to find a more suitable location for the project: “While we understand the necessity and support the practice of building renewable energy projects to meet the needs of our state, we cannot exchange an energy crisis for a food crisis, a water crisis, or a conservation crisis.” Bottom line, Sensible Solar believes that NY State’s blind pursuit of the CLCPA’s goals to the exclusion of all else, and flawed climate policy goals, will negatively impact NY residents forever.

Asked for comments on Copake’s behalf, Deputy Town Supervisor Richard Wolf, the town’s “point man” on all Shepherd’s Run solar project matters, said by email, “We are very disappointed, but not at all surprised by NYS’s decision to issue a draft permit…

“From the beginning, the Copake Town Board has been united in its opposition to the size and location of the proposed Shepherd’s Run Project, as has the vast majority of Copakeans, and our state legislators.

“We are not climate deniers; we are not NIMBY-ists. We support renewable energy and are prepared to do our part.

“But constructing a massive factory alongside a country road that is the gateway to the hamlet of Copake and Copake Lake makes no sense.”

By issuing a draft permit, Mr. Wolf wrote, “ORES has ignored our concerns and has decided to waive Copake’s local laws protecting agriculture, wetlands, wildlife, and our community character. ORES has chosen to ignore Copake’s long history as a conscientious steward of its land.”

Pointing to Copake’s Comprehensive Plan (2011), Farmland Protection Plan (2014), Zoning Code, and solar energy laws, the deputy supervisor said all these measures “have been crafted to support protect valuable farmland, and to promote outdoor recreation tourism.

“New York is supposed to be a home rule state,” he continued, “in which local towns are supposed to be responsible for land use decisions. But ORES has decided our laws are ‘unduly burdensome’ and will be waived because complying with them would make the project more expensive or require that some of the components be moved.”

Town officials have tried to have a dialogue with Hecate. “But Hecate has refused to have serious discussions with us. Why? Because it knows it doesn’t have to. The only dialogue it cares about is with ORES. That’s because the regulations governing the siting process tilt the playing field heavily in favor of developers.

“If Hecate cared about being the community partner it claims to be, it would have worked with Copake to make the installation less unattractive, and protect nearby homeowners from dramatic losses in the values of their homes. Hecate still can work with us.”

Referring to the ad hoc Working Group’s proposal to create a 300-acre publicly accessible greenspace running alongside the length of the project, screening it, and creating bicycle paths and nature trails, Mr. Wolf said, “If Hecate was willing to spend a little money to make the greenspace a reality, it could turn Shepherd’s Run from an eyesore into a tourist attraction.

“As to what’s next… our attorney and environmental engineer are reviewing the draft permit. We await the results of their review, and their recommendations.”

In his October 12 report to the Town Board on ongoing Hecate matters, Mr. Wolf reported that Appellate Division Third Department justices denied the plaintiffs’ request to re-argue the lawsuit brought by Copake, five other small upstate towns and seven non-profits which sought to overturn ORES regulations. The attorneys representing Copake and other upstate rural towns and non-profits are considering possible next steps.

An emailed request for comment on the draft permit from Hecate Energy Director of Development Matt Levine did not receive a response.

In the new year, ORES has scheduled public hearings on the project to take place at Copake Town Hall, 230 Mountain View Road, January 9 and 10, 2024 at 1:30 and 6 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

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