FORT EDWARD — The state’s drive for renewable energy is colliding with vital conservation efforts in Fort Edward’s grasslands.
“Our position is that we’re supportive of solar,” mentioned Katherine Roome, a board member of the Grassland Bird Trust, or GBT.
The nonprofit shaped in 2010 to guard open, grassy land within the Fort Edward space and advocate for the wild birds that depend upon it.
GBT is worried that renewable energy developer Boralex’s proposed 100-megawatt solar facility on 750 acres in Fort Edward and Argyle will hurt this scarce habitat.
According to GBT, greater than 100 species of birds breed, winter or migrate within the grasslands in Fort Edward, Argyle and Kingsbury. A winter resident, the short-eared owl, is endangered within the state. Once New York’s most typical owl, the inhabitants is all the way down to solely 50 breeding pairs statewide. Ten different birds that winter or breed there are threatened.
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There’s little or no science on the impact of ground-mounted solar panels on birds, Roome mentioned. Small birds just like the Henslow’s sparrow, japanese meadowlark, bobolink, and sedge wren, all threatened in New York, could possibly forage and nest within the grass underneath the rows of panels and their posts.
A pair of red-tailed hawks perch on tree branches overlooking the Washington County Grasslands within the Fort Edward space in February 2020.
By distinction, raptors just like the short-eared owl and state-threatened northern harrier and American kestrel hunt by sight and fly low over the bottom. Roome referred to as it “highly doubtful” that the birds can dodge the panels and nonetheless seize their prey.
“We’ll be the test case for how grassland birds live with solar panels,” Roome mentioned. “We don’t want our birds to be used as lab rats.”
The difficulty of grassland chicken habitat has come up in a few of Boralex’s different solar initiatives, mentioned Darren Suarez, the corporate’s vp of communications and public relations.
“We work with key stakeholders to integrate our projects,” Suarez mentioned. “We’re open to a variety of ways to work with the community. All potential solutions are on the table. We’re very conscious of our role as developers to mitigate climate change.”
Boralex is a Canadian firm with operations in Canada, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom. It owns and operates seven hydroelectric stations in New York, together with websites in Hudson Falls, Middle Falls, South Glens Falls, and Warrensburg. It lately began growing solar electrical initiatives within the U.S. and has solar farms in service in California, Indiana and Alabama. More initiatives are in growth, together with 12 in New York.
New York grew to become extra enticing for solar builders in July 2019 when the state handed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The act goals to double the state’s distributed solar era to six,000 MW by 2025, generate 70% of the state’s electrical energy from renewable sources by 2030, and have 100% carbon emissions-free electrical energy by 2040.
A vacationer scans the horizon with binoculars as his spouse information observations as they make a go to to the grasslands chicken viewing space off county Route 42 in Fort Edward in September. The Grassland Bird Trust is worried that Boralex’s proposed 100-megawatt solar facility on 750 acres in Fort Edward and Argyle will hurt the scarce habitat for greater than 100 species of birds that breed, winter or migrate within the grasslands in Fort Edward.
The CLCPA modified the oversight of massive solar initiatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to a brand new company, the Office of Renewable Energy Siting, or ORES, and streamlined the allowing course of.
Boralex’s 100 MW undertaking within the Washington County Grasslands could be 90% in Fort Edward and 10% in Argyle. Twenty-MW initiatives in Easton, Greenwich and Moreau are within the early phases of growth, Suarez mentioned.
The Fort Edward web site, east of the village, is fascinating as a result of it’s treeless and is crossed by a National Grid transmission line. Boralex has lease choices with 23 landowners, in response to GBT.
“Boralex’s website is full of statements about how they want to be environmentally aware,” Roome mentioned.
Her group understands the significance of phasing out fossil fuels to struggle local weather change and acknowledges the potential monetary advantages of the undertaking to Fort Edward, she mentioned. But GBT questions what occurs to the grassland and its wildlife when a vital a part of it’s lined by solar panels.
“We want to collaborate with Fort Edward to modify the Boralex plan without affecting benefits to the town,” Roome mentioned throughout a presentation Nov. 14 to the Town Board. That consists of siting panels away from 78 acres that GBT owns and manages close to the Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Viewing Area on County Road 42 and a 480-acre state-owned wildlife administration space close by. GBT would additionally like Boralex to pay attention the panels within the southern a part of its goal space. That land has been extra affected by agriculture and is much less enticing to birds, Roome mentioned.
Short-eared owls on the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area in Fort Edward, as seen in 2014.
Under the state’s earlier laws for solar services, Boralex would have been required to preserve 3 acres of comparable habitat for each 1 acre taken for the undertaking, both by buy or arranging a conservation settlement with close by landowners. The new laws cut back that to 0.2 acres for winter habitat and 0.4 acres for breeding habitat.
“They might have to conserve fewer than 100 acres,” Roome mentioned. “Our goal is to have them conserve much more than that.”
State permits wanted
When it’s prepared to use for state permits, Boralex must file a discover of its intent to file an utility and maintain a public listening to. It could have 60 days to file the applying, Roome mentioned.
“All applicants with completed applications have to put up $100,000 to cover costs for parties that want to intervene,” Roome mentioned. “But it’s very hard to intervene. Applicants put in a large amount of environmental data. ORES sees that the application is complete, and there’s not a lot more evidence introduced.”
“We’re in the information collection stage,” Suarez mentioned.
Environmental subject research and evaluation of the information will proceed into the early a part of 2023, then “we’ll approach the state about a permit,” he mentioned.
If authorised, power era would start in late 2024 or early 2025, relying on the allowing course of, availability of labor and supplies, and climate.
“We have agreements with the landowners to be on the site for 30 years,” Suarez mentioned. “That could be extended.”
He referred to as solar power services “a temporary land use”: When the undertaking ends, the land could be restored. Solar farms forestall different, everlasting conversions comparable to housing, he mentioned.
ORES has authority over solar initiatives larger than 25 MW, however “towns have a special role to review the project,” Suarez mentioned. “We provide funds to help them do that. We want to be consistent with local laws.”
At the top of the undertaking, “we have an obligation to remove the materials and leave the site better than we found it,” Suarez mentioned. “We’ll take the panels out and recycle them.”
Could Boralex simply substitute previous panels with new ones?
“The efficiency of solar panels is increasing,” Suarez mentioned. “They’ll produce more energy more often with less land. As the technology improves, in 10 years panels could be 10 times more efficient.”
Boralex’s U.S. workplace is in South Glens Falls. With its hydroelectric websites, “Boralex has been in the community for more than 20 years,” Suarez mentioned. “We have a long-term commitment to the community.” For the solar initiatives, “we’re working with all involved to identify the right locations. We’re working to come up with solutions that meet most interests.”
The city is simply beginning the method with Boralex, Fort Edward Town Supervisor Timothy Fisher mentioned. Town officers have met with Boralex employees, and the city legal professional will evaluation the corporate’s proposals.
“Boralex is trying to be good to the town,” Fisher mentioned.
Fort Edward has zoning and allowing necessities. A 20 MW solar undertaking with a special developer goes by way of the city’s planning course of, however due to the dimensions of the Boralex proposal, oversight lies with ORES.
“We really don’t have authority over it,” Fisher mentioned.
The landowners who lease their land to Boralex “will be the biggest beneficiaries” regionally, Fisher mentioned. Boralex will make funds in lieu of taxes to the city.
Boralex “likes to do community projects,” Fisher mentioned.
The city owns a park within the Fort Miller neighborhood that wants enhancements, and he’s hopeful the corporate shall be prepared to assist.
“That has to be negotiated,” Fisher mentioned.
GBT says that the uncommon birds that may be seen on the grasslands draw locals and vacationers. The Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Viewing Area was added to the New York State Birding Trail earlier this yr, and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and officers with Washington County Tourism acknowledge the grasslands’ significance to county tourism.
The city has no means of monitoring that financial impression.
“We know it’s a popular area,” Fisher mentioned.
Argyle Town Supervisor Robert Henke mentioned he expects the ten% of the undertaking in his city “would mostly be access” to the remainder of the land. Argyle has no zoning or web site plan evaluation.
“I’ve heard very little comment on it one way or the other,” Henke mentioned. “I’m not sure where I stand on it.”
In 1997, the National Audubon Society named 2,000 acres of grassland in Fort Edward, Argyle and Kingsbury an Important Bird Area, or IBA, due to its excessive worth to grassland and different birds.
“Audubon has been involved for decades with the preservation of the Fort Edward grasslands,” mentioned Michael Burger, govt director of Audubon Connecticut and New York and vp of National Audubon. Audubon helped cease a proposed 327-home growth within the space in 2006, he mentioned.
Recognizing the grave menace of local weather change to birds, “Audubon is strongly in favor of renewable energy development,” Burger mentioned. “But it has to be sited responsibly so it doesn’t impact birds. There’s all the space in the state that it needs to develop solar without affecting the highest quality habitat.”
The Fort Edward grasslands “are one of the most important sites for grassland birds in New York,” Burger mentioned.
A report earlier this yr from the DEC recognized the grasslands as one of many eight most necessary grassland areas within the state, and the farthest east. But grasslands are hardly ever protected. About 95% of New York’s grasslands are privately owned. The state controls lower than 0.5%, in response to the report, “New York Department of Environmental Conservation Strategy for Grassland Habitat Management and Conservation 2022-2027.”
Habitats being misplaced
As a outcome, the habitat is quickly being misplaced to growth, intensive agriculture and reversion to forest. The birds who want that habitat are vanishing with it.
North America has misplaced a couple of third of its birds since 1970, in response to a 2019 examine from Cornell University, and “grassland birds are one of the fastest disappearing groups of birds in North America,” Burger mentioned.
Audubon has collaborated with researchers to foretell the impression of local weather change on particular person chicken species. It lately studied whether or not habitat loss or local weather change has the larger potential to drive species to extinction.
“For grassland birds, habitat is more important,” Burger mentioned.
Burger mentioned he’s spoken with GBT and Boralex to change info and share issues.
“We’re monitoring the situation,” he mentioned. “Boralex hasn’t submitted an application yet.” When that occurs, “we’ll have more information and Audubon will see how it can be involved.”
“The first we heard of” the undertaking “was a few months ago,” when GBT contacted them, mentioned Lewis Grove, director of wind and energy at American Bird Conservancy. “This is the first solar project we’ve ever come out against.”
Like Audubon, ABC acknowledges the hazard that local weather change poses to birds and all different wildlife.
“We support renewable energy, and solar will be a big part of it,” Grove mentioned. But “the land has incredibly high value for bird conservation.” Populations of grassland birds have dropped 70% to 80% in the previous couple of a long time, he mentioned, and grassland raptors are most in danger.
“Humans don’t think grass is productive. They like to build on it or turn it into agricultural land,” Grove mentioned.
Short-eared owls are a wintering species on the grassland. If Boralex is barely required to preserve 0.2 acre for each acre it takes, “we’re concerned that ratio is so low, important habitat won’t be replaced and the owls will disappear. We want mitigation. If acres are going to be taken out, we want an equal number of acres conserved.”
The undertaking is “in the worst place it could be for birds,” Grove mentioned. “We want the process to be as good as it can be for birds.”
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