Riverhead must examine effect proposed solar farm could have on minority groups, the poor

Will a solar farm have a negative impact on poor people and minorities?

That’s a question the Riverhead Planning Board discussed at their meeting last Thursday.

A proposed 36-megawatt solar-power generating facility in Calverton is partially located in what’s known as an “environmental justice area,” which means the applicant will need to evaluate any negative impacts on impoverished or minority groups within that area.

In 2018, sPower proposed a 36-megawatt solar plant on about 250 acres in Calverton, west of Edwards Avenue and north of the former Calverton Links site.

It is the third solar farm that sPower has proposed in this portion of Calverton. The other two have been approved.

Unlike the first two, which were reviewed by the Riverhead Town Planning Board, the latest proposal is for more than 25 megawatts, and as such, is required to reviewed by the New York State Board of Electric Generation Siting, under Article 10 of the Public Service Law.

In a letter to the Riverhead Planning Board dated Dec. 20, Michael Farrell, the senior manager on the proposal for sPower, wrote that Article 10 regulations require the applicant to identify potential environmental justice areas on the site and to evaluate any “significant and adverse disproportionate environmental impacts of the proposed facility” on any identified environmental justice areas.

And, Mr. Farrell wrote, a review of the most recent census data in the federal American Community Survey identified a portion of the project location that falls within an environmental justice area.

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, potential environmental justice areas are defined as U.S. Census block groups of 250 to 500 households each that, in the census, had populations that met or exceeded at least one of the following statistical thresholds:

At least 51.1% of the population in an urban area reported themselves to be members of minority groups; or

At least 33.8% of the population in a rural area reported themselves to be members of minority groups; or

At least 23.59% of the population in an urban or rural area had household incomes below the federal poverty level.

Mr. Farrell said sPower does not expect any disproportionate adverse impact on the environmental justice area, but that they will conduct an analysis that will define the environmental justice area as being within a half-mile of the site.

Jeff Murphree, the town’s building and planning administrator, said there are two environmental justice areas in the Riverhead Solar 2 area.

There are 2,719 people living in these areas, according to the 2010 census, and of those people, 45.2% identified themselves as minorities and 26.8% were below the federal poverty level.

Planning Board member Ed Densieski said he doesn’t think solar panels will have a negative environmental or social impact on people living near the solar panels.

But Planning Board chairman Stan Carey said that it could affect property values, or residents could be impacted depending on whether they have public water or not.

Mr. Murphree said the area is question is a very large area and goes from the Brookhaven Town line to east of Edwards Avenue and north to Sound Avenue.

The Dec. 20 letter from Mr. Farrell asks that the town respond by Jan. 6.

sPower’s two prior solar farms in Calverton are a 6.3-megawatt facility on 45 acres on the east side of Edwards Avenue, and a 20-megawatt facility on 109 acres on the west side of Edwards Avenue, which crosses over to the east side. sPower has said in the past the 36-megawatt solar farm could generate enough electricity to power 8,500 homes.