COLONIE — Developers proposing to build a community solar farm off Curry Road say they would convert the 75 acres of land into a habitat similar to that of the adjoining Pine Bush and one where the Karner blue butterfly will feel at home. It also plans to sell subscriptions to the electricity generated from the site to anyone interested — industrial, commercial and residential users.
“This site is unique. The biodiversity in the Pine Bush is a little different than what we are typically used to,” said Gillian Black, the director of project development at Environmental Design Partnership, a Troy-based solar company with operations in the United Kingdom and Africa. “We engaged with the Albany Pine Bush Commission and understand their concerns and we are looking how this can create a net benefit for everyone: the birds and the bees and the butterflies and the trees.”
The plan calls for constructing a solar panel array and in between the panels, plant vegetation like lupine, pitch pine and scrub oak to essentially extend the Pine Bush habitat located just east of the site. Once the vegetation catches, the idea is to draw the Karner and other species onto the acreage they currently do not habitat.
“Absent our ability to protect that property in its entirety it is not necessarily a bad proposal,” said Neil Gifford, the conservation director at the Pine Bush Preserve, during a previous interview. “The devil is in the details but it is not the worst thing that could happen. It is an opportunity for us to work with the town and on the application for a compatible use that does not have a negative impact on the preserve, and in many ways it helps us fulfill our goal to get the Karner blue butterfly off the endangered species list.”
Gifford said the preserve would, ideally, like to purchase the land but to do that both sides, the seller and the preserve, have to agree on the specifics and it did not work out.
“This is the best opportunity we have to balance conservation and economic development on that site,” Gifford said.
Black, during a presentation to the Planning Board on Tuesday, Feb. 15, said his company generally tries to make the best use of the land between the solar panels including planting wild flowers and cutting them in a way to attract bees and on some projects have bee keepers on site. The company also hosts school field trips and has funds an annual STEAM scholarship for a graduating senior in the host community.
The swath of land is basically across from Penhold Drive and behind theChurch of the Pentacost and other road side homes and businesses along Curry Road. It has long been home to the Jerry Phibbs Airport, a small community landing strip with a runway of 2,800 feet. The rest of the site has been used to grow soybean, a plant the Karner does not like.
“It is not a great environment as it stands,” Black said. “The idea is to build a solar farm, and turn the land back into as optimal a site as possible based on this area’s unique biodiversity. Perhaps it is not the most ideal, which would be to take it out of any other use and return it to back to pine bush, but we are coming at it from an environmental stewardship angle and creating green energy, so it works.”
The plan is to generate solar energy on panels that move with the sun to maximize the process. The system also allows energy to be stored when the sun is at its strongest, at noon, for when demand is at its highest, in the morning and evening.
The energy captured will be fed to National Grid who in turn gives a credit which is applied to the bills of those who subscribe to the solar farm plan. A subscriber’s energy bill would be about 10 percent less than non-subscribers using a similar amount of electricity, Black said, and equates to about a month of free electricity when compared to current bills.
“One of the benefits is we put it one place. It’s an equalization of solar,” Black said. “It allows people who rent, people who don’t want to have it on their roof, or for whatever reason does not want to host a system, to benefit from solar.”
Once up and running, subscriptions will be open to those in the Capital District first and then opened to all customers of National Grid.
The nuts and bolts
Environmental Design Partnerships has 14 approved solar projects in the Capital District with 12 currently under construction and another eight in the planning process. The company has solar farms up and running in Mechanicville, Saratoga and Schodack.
Because of a quirky state law regulating solar farms, the land is broken into two separate and distinct solar farms on paper, but it will essentially be one project. One “half” of the farm will generate about 7.5 megawatts of power and the other about 5 megawatts.
The panels will be secured on posts pounded into the ground without the benefit of concrete. The posts are about 40 feet apart, leaving plenty of open ground beneath the panels to plant lupine and other Pine Bush vegetation.
The panels will stand about 15-feet high when they are fully extended and move about one degrees every eight minutes, Black said, to maximize exposure to the sun. They will produce shaded areas, where the Karner likes to lay their eggs, and allow enough sunlight through to accommodate the needs of the vegetation.
The parcel is currently zoned Single Family Residential and a use variance is required from the Zoning Board of Appeals. It must also come back before the Planning Board at least two more times — for concept acceptance and final site plan approval — before construction can begin. Construction is expected to take between four to six months.
The Planning Board, during the sketch plan introduction, asked about screening and buffering between neighbors on the east side of the site, one of whom would like to continue hunting deer on the site.
“We are sensitive to that. We’d like to be good neighbors and we would like to give the neighbors exclusive hunting rights to the areas we are not developing,” Black said. “We will continue to speak with him and other neighbors who have concerns about losing the hunting area and the visuals. We have begun the process, and we are working on it as best we can in earnest.”
If approved there will be a trail system through the site with interpretative signs to explain the inner workings of the solar farm and, in this case, how clean energy and conserving the Pine Bush can work simultaneously.
Town Code is specific in what can and cannot happen when a solar farm is proposed. It must conform to setback and buffering requirements and design standards of the underlying zoning, in this case Single Family Residential. The town prohibits any clear cutting to construct a solar farm but in this case the land is vacant and cleared without any trees. There must also be a decommission plan in place and the project must generate power within two years of getting its approval.
Black said the company, which will purchase the property from Phibbs, will look for a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement with the town, county and school district. Right now, he said, he thought the property was covered an agriculture tax exemptions and if the project moves forward, it will pay taxes on the underlying assessed value plus it will be taxed as an “energy property” so while details and exact dollar amounts are not known, the taxes paid after completion will be more than what is paid now.