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State will review Riverhead solar project

Is Riverhead the solar capital of Long Island?

It may be, as plans for the latest solar project, Riverhead Solar 2, a proposed 36-megawatt photovoltaic solar field on 290 acres of leased private land on Edwards Avenue, progress. The developer, sPower, already operates a solar facility — Riverhead Solar 1 — adjacent to the proposed facility.

It would bring the total solar energy production in Riverhead to 65.3 megawatts, according to town environmental planner Jeffrey Seeman. 

When the Riverhead Solar 2 project is complete, Riverhead facilities will account for 85 percent of all solar power generated on Long Island, where, according to a recent Bloomberg report, solar power is worth more than anywhere else in the country. The report found that solar sells for an average of $45 per megawatt-hour compared to $15 per megawatt-hour in California.

As the state review of the proposal gets underway, Riverhead Town officials are left wondering: what’s in it for us?

“There’s huge money to be made here,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard during a work session meeting with sPower representatives Thursday. “We just seem to be the nesting place for solar and not reaping any of the benefits and that bothers me,” he said.

Equally bothersome to the town board is what was referred to as a “loss of local control” in the approval process.

Under state legislation from 2011, new “major electric generating facilities,” that would generate more than 25 megawatts of electricity must be reviewed and ultimately decided upon by state officials.

A seven-member siting review board consists of five state officials from the Public Service Commission, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the chair of New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Department of Health and the commissioner of Economic Development as well as two ad-hoc members nominated by the town and county.

Board members expressed concern that state officials may not duly consider comments from the town, which must be gathered by Oct. 5.

A preliminary scope statement filed with the NYS Department of Public Service Sept. 14 is “triggering those timetables,” according to town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz.

A 60-day public comment period will follow, once a formal application is filed.

“I feel we’re under the gun for something that seemed to come out of the blue,” Councilman Jim Wooten said. 

Mr. Kozakiewicz pointed out that the developers held a public informational meeting in Riverhead in March.

Still, the timeline feels rushed for board members who have lingering concerns. “It’s a lot to absorb,” said Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.

Her top concern is whether the existing substation on Edwards Avenue could handle the additional energy once these solar projects are complete, what changes to that structure would look like, and potential health hazards associated with the solar field. “I want to make sure we’re addressing everything,” she said.

According to James Muscato, an attorney representing sPower, the preliminary scope statement addresses environmental and health impacts and all state mandated public hearings on the project would be held in Riverhead.

Mr. Muscato, who said he has worked on over a dozen similar projects across the state, said local municipalities are involved. “Your voices are certainly heard at every opportunity,” he reassured board members.

Derek Kremser, a project manager for sPower, noted that the Riverhead Solar 2 project would not require further expansion of the Edwards Avenue substation.

“This project wouldn’t trigger an expansion. What about other projects?” asked town building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree, referencing several other projects that are moving through the process, including Nextera.

“[Nextera] is a separate developer, I can’t speak to that project,” Mr. Kremser said.

According to the preliminary scope statement, the field would consist of single-axis tracking structures no more than eight feet high that would follow the sun throughout the day.

Responding to an inquiry by Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, Mr. Kremser said that any noise associated with the structures is “negligible” and would require some additional maintenance. The panels would move to stay directed at the sun for optimal energy production, he noted.

The developers claim the project would generate enough power for upwards of 6,500 homes. The board raised the question of whether local homeowners would see that reflected in their electric bills. 

“People want to hear that their rates are gonna go down,” Mr. Hubbard said.

Mr. Kremser said that’s a common question that arises, and difficult to answer since rates are set by the area’s utilities.

Since the state announced an aggressive goal to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, solar projects have made inroads, especially on agriculturally and industrially-zoned properties in Riverhead.

The influx of projects is enough to give town board members pause.

Ms. Giglio said the projects should be considered from a land-use standpoint. “I think [there] needs to be more of a comprehensive view for the area,” she said. “We’re going to have one big block and chunk of land that’ll be solar farms.”

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Photo caption: The developers, sPower, already operate a solar facility — Riverhead Solar 1 — adjacent to the proposed facility. (Riverhead News-Review file photo)