By Anne Reynolds
In late June, after the end of New York State’s 2019 legislative session, my organization organized a bus ride from the state Capitol in Albany to visit two remarkable renewable energy projects in the Black River Valley and the Tug Hill Plateau. Passengers on the bus included four members of the State Assembly, including Energy Committee Chair Michael Cusick, staff from the State Senate Energy and Environment committees, in addition to the Alliance for Clean Energy New York (ACE NY) team. Our first stop was the Soft Maple hydroelectric facility, a century-old power plant that was a marvel of engineering in its time, and still generates carbon-free electricity using its original turbines.
Next, we visited the Maple Ridge Wind Farm. Located in the town of Lowville, on the plateau’s sloping north ridges, the green pastures and fields spread across the horizon. So did the 120 turbines, their blades moving gently in the wind. They have been a model, a boon, and an inspiration for farmers, renewable energy developers, and local officials. The project has reduced taxes and simultaneously provided needed and appreciated resources for the local school district, making it one of the best-funded in the region.
Built over a decade ago, for a time it was the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi River. Maple Ridge is a strong reminder of the benefits such projects bring to local communities. Ironically, it also stands as a symbol of missed opportunities for other communities across Upstate New York. Maple Ridge was one of the last projects built before New York approved Article 10 of the state Public Service Law, a measure that was supposed to streamline large-scale energy project approvals. In fact, it has done just the opposite.
Looking back to that June bus ride, we also felt a sense of irony given that New York State had just passed the most aggressive and ambitious climate and clean energy law in the nation. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which took effect January 1, 2020, is viewed as, and hopefully will become a defining moment in New York’s quest to play a leading role in the clean energy revolution. The CLCPA sets us on the path toward a set of ambitious goals, including 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, and 100 percent emissions-free by 2050.
But here’s the problem. No new wind projects have been built in the state under the new permitting structure put in place by the 2011 passage of Article 10. And no grid-scale solar in Upstate NY, either. With good intentions, Article 10 sets a high environmental bar, and developers are required to provide up to $400,000 per project to help fund local groups to hire experts and consultants to participate in, and offer advice to, the siting process. Unfortunately, from the developers’ perspective, the target seems to be constantly moving. As a former Deputy Commissioner at the State Department of Environmental Conservation, one of the lead participating agencies, I am all for tough environmental standards. As the head of ACE NY, which is uniquely made up of both developers and environmental organizations, I understand the problems that are created when the requirements for projects change mid-stream. Consistency and standardization are among the reforms we are calling for this year in the Article 10 process. In the upcoming state legislative session, we intend to urge lawmakers and the Governor to agree to significant improvements to allow responsible developers to move steadily and predictably forward. Large-scale renewable resources will provide the scale needed to address the climate emergency: but only if we get them built, and quickly! This is critical if New York is going to have the healthy pipeline of diverse projects it needs to meet ambitious CLCPA goals.
We are encouraged that the state Department of Public Service, which implements Article 10, has been hiring additional staff as part of the plan to facilitate new projects, and the Department of Environmental Conservation needs to do the same. Fortunately, New York is starting to unite behind the measures needed to truly realize the clean energy future. And the state seems to be learning that it can’t meet world class climate goals without hiring and training the regulators and other staffers it needs to keep projects moving forward in a timely way. Otherwise, those entering that new economy will have no choice but to invest elsewhere.
For now, we are excited and encouraged. It is a new year, a new legislative session and a there is a growing awareness of what the state’s future energy landscape can look like. We saw it that beautiful early summer day: wind turbines touching the horizon, helping farmers who are struggling to stay in business, reducing taxes and providing vital support to the school district. Indeed, our visit ended with a nice lunch and wine reception at a local vineyard that has expanded its business to accommodate the many people coming to see Maple Ridge for themselves.
Anne Reynolds is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York (ACE NY), an Albany-based nonprofit organization formed in 2006 to promote clean and renewable energy and energy efficiency. Ms. Reynolds has over 20 years of experience in the energy and environmental arena.