FENNER — National solar energy company Cypress Creek Renewables is preparing to apply for a permit from New York State’s Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) for Oxbow Hill Solar, a utility-scale solar project proposed in the Town of Fenner.
The project has a proposed capacity of 140 megawatts (MW), which, according to the Cypress Creek website, would supply power to approximately 30,000 households.
Collocated with the existing 30 MW Fenner Wind Farm, the solar project would connect to the existing Fenner substation and utilize existing wind farm access roads.
According to Keith Silliman, director of regulatory compliance at Cypress Creek, the solar developer is currently leasing approximately 1,300 acres from 10 landowners to accommodate the proposed project. Several of the parcels were placed under leasing agreements in 2019, and some have been added since.
The proposed project area once constructed would be approximately 700 acres.
Silliman said that for the proposed project to sell its power, the developer will need to obtain renewable energy credits from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). According to Silliman, NYSERDA currently has a request for proposals out, and Cypress Creek is preparing to submit the Oxbow Hill Solar Project in April.
On Feb. 28, Silliman reported that Cypress Creek has been conducting fieldwork at the project site in support of developing its 94-c permit application, which the company anticipates filing with ORES in the summer of 2023.
“We have conducted several surveys (wildlife, wetland, avian, cultural, geotechnical, etc.) as well as a full instrument survey of the parcel boundaries,” said Silliman, who added that the bulk of the fieldwork in support of the application has been completed.
A few years ago, New York State enacted a significant overhaul of large-scale renewable energy project permitting.
The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth & Community Benefits Act, which passed as part of the FY 2020-2021 state budget, established ORES, located within the Department of State, to consolidate the environmental review and permitting of major renewable energy facilities into a single forum that provides “a coordinated and timely review” of siting permit applications.
All large-scale renewable energy projects 25 MW or larger are now required to obtain a siting permit from ORES for new construction or expansion.
“This process is designed to help meet the state’s renewable energy objectives while ensuring the protection of the environment with consideration of all pertinent social, economic and environmental factors (including environmental justice) while providing opportunity for local government and community participation in the permitting process,” the ORES website states.
According to the state, the mission of ORES is consistent with the goals set forth in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which was signed into law in 2019 to address climate change and put New York State on a path to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions. One of the plan’s targets is to generate 70 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
In 2021, the Town of Fenner adopted a local law to amend its land use regulations with respect to solar energy systems.
Prior to the adoption of the local law, solar energy systems were prohibited principal uses under the town’s zoning regulations.
The local law regulates the design, placement, construction, and operation of small-scale solar systems that support principal residential, agricultural, and business uses, and it continues the town’s prohibition on large-scale commercial solar facilities.
“The Town of Fenner prides itself on its rural character and agrarian heritage that make it an attractive location for farms and rural residences,” the local law states. “The Town of Fenner has been a leader in renewable energy, being the home of one of the first commercial wind energy facilities in New York State, and recognizes that appropriately utilized, solar energy may be a readily available and renewable energy source that does not create air emissions in the course of generating electricity. Development of solar farms can, however, have a deleterious effect on the community when it occurs on agricultural lands, thereby removing those lands from production and creating a visual blight upon the community.”
The local law was the result of recommendations from the town’s solar committee, which was formed “to study the impacts, effects, and possible controls over ground solar energy facilities and to consider amendments to the zoning laws to address ground solar.”
The committee consisted of a member of the town board, a member of the planning board, a member of the zoning board of appeals, an agricultural representative, and a member of the board of directors of the Fenner Renewable Energy Education Center.
Based on research and data gathered from discussions with state, county, and local agencies and representatives, the committee determined it was in the best interest of the Town of Fenner to prohibit all solar projects of commercial or industrial size.
“This recommendation reflects the significant unknowns and uncertainties embodied in the State of New York’s recently released, yet undefined Legislative laws and the implementation of the new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting,” the August 2020 Solar Committee Report states.
“The committee, by majority, recommends the Town of Fenner Board adopt this position, safeguarding the Town of Fenner’s agricultural heritage and future. This recommended action by the Fenner Town Board also supports Madison County’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan.”
One committee member recommended that the town approve large-scale ground solar projects, arguing that the town and individual landowners would benefit economically, that individual landowners should have the right to manage their land as they wish, and that the best way to preserve farmland is for the farmers to earn a decent living off of the farmland.
Under the 94-c process, Cypress Creek can ask ORES for a waiver of local requirements.
“If ORES finds that the local requirement is unduly burdensome in terms of meeting the state’s CLCPA goals, it can waive the local requirement,” said Silliman.
Fenner Town Supervisor Dave Jones explained that once the solar company has filed its application, the town will be notified by ORES and given the opportunity to explain the rationale behind its local law. The public will also have the chance to comment in favor or against the proposed project.
“You can defend your law to the 94-c siting board, but, I mean, it’s still up to the state [in terms of] basically overriding your home rule,” Jones said on Feb. 22.
Silliman stated that Cypress Creek consistently advises Jones and the town clerk when its team is at the project site conducting fieldwork in support of its state permit application. He also said the company has repeatedly requested the establishment of a regularly scheduled status call/meeting to keep the town apprised of ongoing developments and to keep the lines of communication open.
Jones presented a different perspective on the level of communication between the solar developer and the local community.
“The town and some of our residents have reached out to [Silliman] several times with questions and we never hear back,” Jones said. “We are never informed until after the fact. Cypress Creek has not always been upfront with us . . .”
According to Silliman, Cypress Creek is hoping to provide the town with a detailed update on the proposed project at the April 2023 town board meeting.
“The update would encompass the 94-c State permitting process, our interconnection with National Grid, our participation in the 2022 NYSERDA Renewable Energy Credit Auction, and local benefits from the project,” he said.
Information and updates regarding the proposed Oxbow Hill Solar Project can be found at ccrenew.com/projects/oxbow/.