Solar farm regs taking shape in wake of LIPA push

Credit: Patrick W. Moore
Credit: Patrick W. Moore

For years people have been talking about solar as a clean alternative energy source, but only recently has the prospect of large-scale solar farms started taking shape on the North Fork.

Two years ago, Long Island Power Authority sought proposals for solar energy projects that would generate 100 megawatts of power —enough to power about 13,000 homes —and 76 solar projects across Long Island were selected in April.

In addition, LIPA and PSEG-Long Island — which manages LIPA’s electric grid — are now seeking additional proposals for projects that would generate 280 MW more in renewable energy, including solar, natural gas and wind.

“One of the main reasons large scale solar development is initiated is because the utilities issue requests for proposals for projects, and that’s exactly what happened on Long Island,” said Chris Wiedemann, director of development for S Power Solar, a West Coast company that had three projects chosen in April by LIPA, one each in Calverton, Southold and Shoreham. In total, 12 projects were chosen that would be located in Manorville and throughout the North Fork. Project owners will be responsible for construction, installation and maintenance costs, which will then be offset by selling power to PSEG-LI.

But only now that solar power is starting to gain momentum are local municipalities catching up to regulating the energy source.

And not everyone is feeling so sunny about it.

Riverhead and Southold towns have both proposed restricting where power-generating solar farms that would sell energy back to PSEG can be built. The restrictions would not apply to farms that generate solar energy to power their own operations.

Both towns decided to limit commercial solar energy production to industrial zones, prohibiting the practice on agricultural parcels.

“This town, the County of Suffolk, and to some extent, the State of New York, have spent tens of millions of dollars preserving the Agricultural Protection Zone in town,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said in discussing the zoning amendments last month. “I think it sends the wrong message that we would now allow this sort of industrialization [solar panel farms] on preserved farmland.”

Southold already adopted the code change in June, and the Riverhead Town Board has scheduled an Aug. 5 public hearing on its proposal.

Riverhead leaders actually based their proposal on Southold’s, which determined that the town’s two industrial zones were the best locations for solar farms — keeping agriculturally-zoned land out of the mix.

“There is a real demand now to locate solar arrays, and we’ve been getting inquiries from solar companies who are very interested in locating them on farmland,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said in an interview. “We didn’t quite go that far yet.”

Last July, LIPA announced that an increased focus on solar power would “help defer, reduce or eliminate the need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on building new generation, infrastructure, and transmission and distribution lines.”

That announcement came after the utility had already called for 50 MW in solar projects in 2008, while it was calling for its next 100 MW — the request that resulted in the 76 solar arrays currently in the works — and before a request for another 280 MW of solar power last fall. Those bid winners will be announced this December.

All these requests for solar power projects — among other sources of cleaner energy, such as wind or natural gas — are bringing LIPA in accordance with its Electric Resource Plan 2010-2020, which called for reducing emissions by 20 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020, and by 80 percent by the year 2050, benchmarks set by former Governor David Paterson.