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Monster CNY solar farm would replace corn and soybeans with power for 30,000 homes

The 74-megawatt Rutherford Farm solar facility in North Carolina, developed by Cypress Creek Renewables, is a little more than one-third the size of a solar farm proposed in Conquest, Cayuga County. Cypress Creek Renewables

CONQUEST, N.Y. – Imagine every inch of the New York State Fair covered with solar panels. Now double it. That’s the size of a solar farm that developers hope to build in Cayuga County.

The proposed facility in the rural town of Conquest would contain hundreds of thousands of solar panels spread across 2,000 acres, or more than three square miles.

That’s an area the size of Otisco Lake.

It’s as big as the entire village of Baldwinsville.

The Conquest project would generate up to 200 megawatts. Over a year, it could supply enough electricity to power more than 30,000 average homes, assuming the solar panels produce at a typical capacity factor of 14%. That’s roughly enough power for every household in Cayuga County.

In paperwork filed with the state, developer NextEra Energy said the solar panels and other equipment would cover 1,200 to 1,400 acres within the project site, a patchwork of parcels totaling 2,000 acres. The rest of the land would be used to provide setbacks from neighbors or to avoid environmentally sensitive areas. The layout is still undetermined.

At 200 megawatts, the facility would be far bigger than any solar array built thus far in New York state. But there are even bigger projects on the drawing board. Dozens of huge solar farms have been proposed across Upstate in recent years.

Next door in Wayne County, an even bigger facility is proposed – 350 megawatts. Other massive CNY solar farms are planned in Oneida, Jefferson and Lewis counties, among others. In the past two months alone, nine projects filed permit applications with state officials.

But none of the projects has been built. The largest solar farm in New York is 32 megawatts.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week proposed a new fast-track approval process that could get the bigger projects built in a hurry. If state lawmakers approve, Cuomo would establish a permit office for renewable energy projects in the Department of Economic Development that would approve or deny applications in a year or less.

That’s fast. The current regulatory process can drag on for “five, six, seven, eight, nine years,’’ Cuomo said in a conference call last week.

Why speed up the process? State lawmakers last year enacted Cuomo’s goal of producing 70% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. That is starkly ambitious. New York currently gets less than 30% from renewables.

Meeting the target will require, among other things, a wave of big solar development the likes of which New York has not seen. It could transform New York’s energy landscape as well as the landscape of some rural communities.

That will never happen if the state does not accelerate the approval process, Cuomo said.

NextEra Energy, of Florida is planning to build the Cayuga County project on land it has leased in rural Conquest, population 1,700, according to documents the company filed with the state. NextEra owns utility company Florida Power & Light and a national portfolio of power plants. The company made $4 billion in profits last year.

“More than I’d make farming”

Conquest farmer Lawrence Waterman, 72, said he arrived home one day last summer to find a land agent waiting by his mailbox on the farm where Waterman grows corn and soybeans. After getting his lawyer involved, Waterman agreed to a lease option under which NextEra can lease his entire farm for 30 years, with the possibility of a 20-year renewal.

The lease will take effect after NextEra gets approval to build, said Waterman, who has farmed the property since 1985. He declined to say how much NextEra will pay.

“It’s more than I’d make farming,’’ he said.

NextEra has negotiated similar lease options with other property owners near Waterman’s farm.

Waterman’s property is crossed by a high-power transmission line operated by the New York Power Authority, which makes it especially well-suited for a power project.

Solar power developers have scouted out similar locations around the state where they can build large-scale projects and tie into the electric grid, just as traditional power plants do. They would sell power on the competitive wholesale market. To buttress that revenue, most solar companies apply for subsidies from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

NYSERDA periodically solicits bids and awards 20-year contracts to subsidize renewable power production. NextEra has applied for the current round of funding, winners of which have not yet been announced.

A new scale of solar

Over the past decade, the number of solar panels on New York rooftops has soared. In Onondaga County alone, there are more than 1,200 solar installations, NYSERDA reports.

Increasingly, municipalities and businesses have built freestanding solar installations as well. The town of DeWitt, for example, recently installed a 2.7-megawatt solar farm atop its landfill. But solar power still accounts for less than 1 percent of New York generation.

The new wave of solar projects aims to be exponentially larger.

Cuomo’s proposal to fast-track regulatory approvals should make it much more likely for projects like the one in Conquest to get built, said Anne Reynolds, executive director of Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a coalition of renewable energy companies and environmental groups. Lawmakers will consider Cuomo’s plan during the upcoming budget process.

“I think it’s really promising,’’ Reynolds said. “I think it’s great news that the governor recognized that business as usual wasn’t going to work.’’

One challenge for solar farms, compared with conventional power plants, is the need for lots of land. Solar panels in this region only produce about 14% of their maximum generating capacity over time. (For starters, they produce zero energy at night. And then there are clouds. And February.) So 1 megawatt of solar capacity is a lot less than 1 megawatt of, say, nuclear generating capacity.

Compare: The three nuclear reactors at Nine Mile Point in Oswego ran at about 90% of capacity in 2018, according to records from the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the power grid. They generated enough electricity in 2018 for more than 2.8 million households.

The nuclear plants occupy about 900 acres. That’s less than half the land needed for the Conquest solar farm, which would supply enough power for roughly 30,000 homes.

Some proposed solar farms – including two large projects in Niagara County – have run into opposition from community residents who object to the transformation of farmland into solar generating plants. A Western New York group called the Coalition to Protect our Rural Communities is fighting to preserve the aesthetics of small towns with the motto, “Solar farms are not agriculture.”

Word has spread through Conquest about the planned solar farm, but NextEra has not yet made any formal presentation to the town board or the public, said Lisa Tortorello, town clerk.

In documents submitted to the state last month, the company said it hoped to begin operation in 2023. The facility, which would be known as Garnet Energy Center, is expected to operate for at least 30 years, the company said.

Construction, which is estimated to take nine to 12 months, would provide up to 250 temporary jobs, the company said. The facility would require three permanent employees.

Company officials this week declined to provide additional details, saying the project is still “in the development process.’’


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