Potsdam village board addresses solar installation code related to facility cleanup
BY ADAM ATKINSON
North Country This Week
POTSDAM — The village board is planning to change its municipal code regarding solar installations to give the municipality more teeth to deal with the aftermath when utility-scale facilities reach the end of their useful life.
The board hosted a public hearing at its meeting Oct. 3 on the change to the village’s code 180-54 which deals with photovoltaic siting in the village. The existing code covers installation of solar panels in residential situations, as well as large-scale commercial, or utility-scale solar power facilities.The new code, if adopted by the village, would allow the municipality more leverage with developers on cleanup of abandoned or decommissioned solar power farms.
“Back in 2015, the village adopted what was at the time a very cutting edge photovoltaic siting model,” said Village Planner Fred Hanss during the hearing. “This was about the time when utility scale photovoltaic systems were being developed across New York State.”
“The village is certainly very supportive of alternate sources of energy, especially renewables. We have a long history with hydroelectricity, and we wanted to make sure that residents in the village of Potsdam, single family home owners, rental property owners could develop rooftop and under certain circumstances, ground mounted solar systems at their home,” Hanss said.
Hanss said that when the original code was developed one of the things the village did not anticipate is that at some point solar installations and larger scale facilities will go out of commission. “And what happens when they do?” Hanss said.
The village planner said he has been conferring with the county planning office over the last year on on this question. He said the county office has developed a local law focusing on two specific issues regarding solar facilities — abandonment of solar farms and their decommissioning.
He said one of the things that developers and landowners are concerned about is what happens in 20 or 30 years after the start date of when a solar farm goes online, and solar tax credits from the state have finally run out, the operating efficiency of the panels has declined, or they are in a state of disrepair, and they aren’t generating the electricity they used to.
“And it becomes to the benefit of the developer, or person leasing the land from the farmers, to walk away from it… who’s responsible for it?” Hanss said.
He said at that point properties could go up for taxes because no one wants to be responsible for remediation.
The planner said the proposed changes in the local law would tighten up the definition of “abandonment” under section 180-54 of the code. After a year of not generating power for export, the solar facility would be considered abandoned under the new code. Owners of the facility could apply for 6-month extension from the planning board to continue operations, Hanss said.
The planner said at the end of the facility’s lease or when it was considered abandoned all of the equipment above grade and at least 4 feet down beneath the site would have to be removed and the site soils be decompacted and restored.
“So the goal would be to get the site conditions back as close to original as possible,” Hanss said.
Under the county’s model law, solar developers would be required to produce a decommissioning plan at the beginning of the development, much like they currently have to produce an environmental site review or other documents. The plan would be on file and be followed by the developer if the site was decommissioned.
Hanss said the model law also requires a financial surety review be supplied by the developer every two years at their expense to the village. The review would take into consideration the value of the site and its equipment. A financial bond or cash would then be posted by the developer and held by the village in the event a site goes offline and used to offset cleanup costs the municipality might have to shoulder if a developer walked away from a defunct facility.
“So it gives you a little bit of control over what happens on the back end of these projects,” Hanss said.
The planner said he has had other conversations with the county planning office on the large storage batteries sometimes used in utility-scale solar farms. Hanss said the batteries apparently do present some potential hazards and he recommended the village consider a village-wide moratorium on this equipment and then look at better ways to manage them.
Trustee Abby Lee brought up the planning concept of Brownfields to Brightfields which seeks to site commercial solar facilities in existing brownfields instead of agricultural land or green spaces.
Hanss said the village currently only allows commercial utility-scale solar facilities in the IND and BLI-2 Zoning Districts. None of the available sites in those districts overlay brownfields he said.
Trustee Monique Tirion asked how many developers are currently interested in setting solar facilities.
Hanss said there is a current utility-scale solar facility owned by Jim Snell on Lawrence Avenue adjacent to Kingston Middle School.
The village planner said there has also been some interest from another developer to locate a facility in the building and light industrial zone behind Collegiate Apartments.
Hanss told the board that if they adopted the local law to change the code on siting photovoltaic facilities at their next meeting, that the Lawrence Avenue site would not be subject to the new rules and standards since it is already operational.
Read the village’s existing code regarding photovoltaic siting online at https://bit.ly/3e1GZxj .