Solar looms larger — and smaller — at chilly town board meeting

Solar looms larger — and smaller — at chilly town board meeting

by Tim Tulloch - The Altamont Enterprise Hilltowns

WESTERLO — The  Westerlo Town Board meeting on Dec. 6 was a chilly affair. Literally.

The building’s aged and ailing heating system— installed in the late 1940s — was pumping out little or no heat. Many who attended kept their coats on. Some heat was generated by a long discussion of solar power’s  place in the town’s future, but not enough to doff coats.

A bond issue narrowly rejected by voters Nov. 8 would have replaced the heating system, along with making other extensive renovations to the old school building that has housed most town functions since 2010.

Money set aside in the 2017 town budget in the event  of just such a defeat will now go toward the cost of replacing the heating system. The work must await both  the required bidding process, to be conducted by Delaware Engineering, the town’s consultant, and the asbestos removal that is to begin Wednesday, according to Building Committee Chairman William Bichteman.

It may be late in January before town hall employees  bask in full heat again.

Solar on their mind

A  lively discussion of solar power ricocheted among audience members during the public comment portion of the meeting.  Until now, the town has had only a small number of applications for residential solar installations and none for large commercial installations.

The solar discussion will resume on Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. when a town board workshop will have  solar power and regulation as its subject.

Dorothy Verch, chairperson of the Planning Board, had reported earlier in the meeting that an application for a large  commercial solar array had been tabled pending the completion and adoption of a  town solar-energy  law. That array, if approved,  would be erected on land belonging to Stuart Beller off Route 1.

Beller owns about 120 acres on which he envisions the eventual construction of two 10-acre arrays producing 2 megawatts each. Beller is committed in a big way to sustainable energy.  His home heating is geothermal; his car and boat are battery-powered; and he says he was the first Westerlo resident to employ solar energy, in 1970.  He is working with Viking Solar, a small Middleburgh company owned by Jamison Corallo that installs mostly residential photovoltaic  systems.

“We want to make sure everyone has the benefit of nature,” says Beller, “and solar power.”

He says, once his plans are approved, he and Corallo will identify a solar developer to build the large array and then determine the best way to sell and distribute the power generated — through community net-metering, or to one or more large power-users.

The town board, at the suggestion of  the town’s zoning and code enforcement officer, Edward Lawson, will hold a public workshop on Dec. 20 to discuss a solar law that’s now in draft form.

Lawson believes more thinking needs to be done before the law moves to final form — including about how the town itself, not just landowners and users, can benefit from solar development; and even about a long-term future when the technology of using photovoltaic cells to capture solar energy may be supplanted by something better.

The only relevant regulation on the town books now is a 50-foot setback requirement for ground-mounted arrays, whether residential or commercial.

— Google Earth view
Lots of room: Stuart Beller, the owner of this land south of Route 1/Switzkill Road in Westerlo, wants to leave a legacy that makes the town less reliant on fossil fuels. He envisions two 10-acre solar arrays on this land.

Thinking smaller

Lawson told The Enterprise the day after the town board meeting that two  solar developers have come to him exploring the lay of the land in Westerlo for large solar arrays. This current flurry of solar-developer interest in the town contrasts with the low activity to date, which has consisted of only occasional permitting of residential installations.

At the board meeting, the only solar-industry viewpoint was expressed by Garrett Lee, a project manager for Hudson Solar, which is based in Albany and Rhinebeck. His company is thinking smaller: one-acre “community” arrays that would  produce around 250 kilowatts  and supply power to 25 to 30 homes.

A solar array on 10 acres in Knox is far along in the approval process and once built will produce 2 megawatts of power for the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute in Albany. An application for a  second array of comparable size has begun to be reviewed by the Knox planning board.

“A one-acre array is easier to hide,” Lee said, “and it wouldn’t require a three-phase power line. Single-phase will work.”

Three-phase power is available in Westerlo, Lawson said, but not widely.

Audience members were intrigued by the idea of a community array. Lee said people would buy panels in the array and then be supplied with  power from their investment. Panels could be re-sold. “And if you move,” he said, “the power stays with you.”

But one resident argued for a solar  moratorium to be put be in place. A town moratorium law, barring any ground-mounted solar installations — commercial or residential — for a period of 6 months does exist in draft form but has never been approved by the board.

Lawson said, “We’re not accepting any application until a law is in place.” He works with applicants prior to their making an application to the planning board.

Big vs. small

“Community solar arrays are typically 10 to 15 acres in size, but for some towns that’s just too large, so we have developed an offer that’s  a little more palatable, ” Brain Nowitzki, sales manager for Hudson Solar, told The Enterprise.

“A smaller array that produces 200 to 300 kilowatts can be done without significant upgrades to the grid, so these proposals fly under the radar of utility companies,” he said.

Nowitzki says there are several advantages to his company’s more modest proposal. He says that, in addition to making it a lot easier to get utility approval, one-acre arrays “increase the number of locations that will work, because a single-phase or two-phase power line will work with them.”

Another big plus, he says, is that a one-acre array “has the potential to fit into the community in a nice way….You can tuck it into spots where a 10-acre array would never fit.” Visibility has been a big concern for the Knox Planning Board as  it review plans for large arrays. Preserving the town’s rural character is mandated by its comprehensive plan.

Nowitzki says some towns resist larger arrays because they may “take prime agricultural land out of production. Smaller arrays can be more viable for the local economy because they can be easily placed in-between working agricultural acreage.”

“One-acre arrays can be a boon to farmers, too,” he added, “who may have some land that can’t be cultivated but that would work nicely as a location for a small array.  Such arrays  can be a good way, then,  for farmers to increase their income [through a lease agreement} without sacrificing good land.”

Some community arrays offer consumers subscription or leasing of panels. Others, like Hudson Solar, prefer the ownership model by which the consumers buy the number of panels that will supply their power needs without having to install solar panels on their homes or on their land.  Savings. when compared to conventional power, are realized by unused power being fed back to the grid.  Known as  net-metering, this process holds out the promise of “making your meter run backward.”

Helderberg Community Energy, a Knox-based advocacy group for sustainable energy, is working with Solarize Albany and Monolith Solar to offer such an arrangement to National Grid customers in the company’s eastern New York load zone, including some Hilltown areas.  Thye array to be shared will be built not in Knox but at another location.

Nowitzki says Hudson Solar likes to draw its consumers from the nearby local community, even though users can come from anywhere in the utility’s service area — in the case of Westerlo from anywhere within Central Hudson’s load zone.

“We like to keep it community-centric,” Nowitzki says. Although the company has yet to erect its first mini-array, he says it is working toward getting permits in several eastern New York counties.

For consumers, he says, getting power from a Hudson Solar community array can deliver savings “upward of 50 percent” on their electricity costs. But he cautions that existing consumer incentives will continue to shrink as the solar industry in New York matures and solar farms proliferate.

“Now’s the time for towns to commit; certainly it’s not the time to put a freeze on solar,” Nowitzki says. His company wants to be an information resource, he says, for towns like Westerlo that may be in the process of formulating policies and regulations concerning solar development.

Lawson said a solar moratorium in Westerlo is now “off the table.”

Other business

Among other business, the town board:

—Scheduled a special town board meeting on Dec. 29 to approve and authorize the payment of year-end bills;

— Scheduled the 2017 re-organization meeting for 7 p.m. on Jan. 3, to be followed by the regular town board meeting; and

— Heard planning board Chairwoman Verch report on an application by Verizon to erect a cellphone tower in the town.

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