New York’s Unequal Trade: House Rules for Electricity | news
The New York State Office’s Renewable Energy Regulations went into effect on March 3rd as local governments struggled to adjust their own solar site laws to adhere to local scrutiny or house rules in the face of several large solar projects proposed in Niagara County.
Dennis Vacco, former New York attorney general, said the house rules, collectively referred to as Section 94-c or Article 94, have been “gutted” the House Rules as special advisor to the City of Cambria on the matter.
Vacco said the state’s previous formal large-scale project siting process, known as Article 10, gave members of the local community two seats on the siting committee that would determine the fate of a proposed project in their community. While the other five board members, all appointed in Albany, could outvote the locals, the belief was that by having a seat at the table, a community could steer the direction of an upcoming project.
With the adoption of the new regulations by ORES, there is no longer a site committee. Instead, the decision as to whether and where projects can go is left to ORES, which should check every application against the new regulations before approval.
Most scary, Vacco said, is the fact that after a year after a new state law is filed, an application is automatically approved even if it hasn’t been reviewed.
“At least Article 10 gave the impression, the veil, if you will, that local ordinances and housekeeping made a difference,” said Vacco. “Even if it was just a window decoration, it was a procedural window decoration. It was better than what we now have with the stripped-down version of Section 94-c that completely disembowels the housekeeping. “
David Kay, Senior Extension Associate in the Global Development Department at Cornell University, has served on various boards dealing with municipal land use planning for years, and his research has focused on issues for local governments and communities that host large solar panels.
Kay says abolishing home ownership in the interests of energy projects is nothing new. He pointed to the evolution of Article 10 over time.
“As an academic, I’m very interested in how democracy works, what compromises there are, who has what say at different levels of government,” said Kay. “Everyone, no matter where they sit, wants to take responsibility. I would agree, without making any value judgments as to whether it is good or bad, that Article 10 – and it is far from the only one – is one of the areas where the state has said, “Local governments: we will take control away from you on that particular question. ‘In my eyes, it’s not this new law that does that because Article 10 already did it. “
Article 10 had led the state to intervene in house rule when it came to very large power plants – 80 megawatts or more – that ran on coal, nuclear and natural gas, Kay said. Then, within the last decade, the threshold was lowered to 25 megawatts.
“That was the big change, and it was at least in part a response to the problem of seeing a lot of wind (energy projects) and who’s in charge,” said Kay.
The 94-c regulations allow energy companies to choose between local and state scrutiny at the 20-25 megawatt threshold. However, Kay said projects within the threshold still need to deliver higher-level studies in order to be incorporated into the network through the government review. He suspects that this is the reason why energy companies are inspired to expand their projects.
“The implication … is, if you have to do this larger study, the economies of scale are so big that they’re not just between 20-25 megawatts,” he said. “You’re going to be going on a bigger project anyway.”
To give an idea of the size, Kay said that a 20 megawatt solar power plant is roughly 100 acres.
With the new location regulations passed, Vacco said the battle for home ownership now depends on local authorities being able to reject Real Estate Act 487, which allows renewable energy companies to automatically receive a 15-year tax exemption.
The law “allows the community to opt out of the exemption, in other words (declare) that we will not allow the projects to be tax-free for 15 years,” Vacco said.
This essentially forces an energy company to negotiate with the affected communities. According to Vacco, this is an incentive for the energy company to agree to an agreement to pay in lieu of tax or a host community agreement that complies with the affected tax jurisdictions, i.e. the city, school district and home district.
However, another state law has now been proposed that would suspend a municipality’s ability to assess the market value of utilities and tax them accordingly.
According to Vacco, if a municipality cannot assess a utility, it will lose its ability to negotiate the best possible financial settlement terms.
In Hartland and Cambria, where utility-scale solar systems have been proposed, both municipalities passed resolutions on Thursday against Real Property 575-b.
“It’s a bill, and they put it in the budget (state 2021-2022) instead of putting it in a stand-alone law,” said Ross Annable, Hartland city overseer. “Everything Albany does is trying to interfere with our home rule, and this is another example of the state taking the role of making these assessments as opposed to the local government.”