ITHACA, N.Y. — In 2017, we carry computers in our pockets, test self-driving cars, and solar panels are not only economically feasible, they’re a promising business venture. Welcome to the new reality.

Once the realm solely comprised of hardcore eco-warriors, solar panels have made steady progress into Tompkins County in recent years, buoyed by decreasing materials costs and more efficient energy storage. Some of that comes in the form of rooftop panels installed by local firms such as Renovus Energy, but an increasing amount is coming from community solar arrays, which are more similar to conventional utility systems that serve a broad audience.

Recently, two more array projects have been proposed for Tompkins County. The first is in Newfield, and more recently a second set in Dryden.

In Newfield, Delaware River Solar, a solar array developer and builder with offices in New York City and Callicoon, has submitted plans to the town and county to build a $12.5 million, 6 MW (megawatt) array on about 57 acres of former farmland on Millard Hill Road. The array would be able to produce enough electricity to power 1,200 homes.

A quirk in state laws technically divides the projects into three separate but contiguous fields of 2 MWs each, because that is the maximum size allowed under New York State community solar array regulations. NYSERDA has approved the project’s tie-in to the electrical grid, and financing is being arranged. The town of Newfield, which has no formal planning review process, has already okayed the arrays in concept, pending county approval of a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT.

Delaware River Solar is seeking a PILOT to reduce the project’s tax burden – according to an application submitted to the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority, the project will not be able to move forward unless a PILOT is arranged. The state doesn’t charge property taxes on solar arrays, but towns and counties can choose whether or not to do so. The company’s concern is that if Newfield and Tompkins County were to charge the full amount (using the $12.5 million figure, that would be $362,500 per year), it would make the project impossible financially.

The proposed PILOT would pay $48,000 in its first year, going up 2% each year thereafter; county records and tax rates indicate the unused crop land currently pays about $5,000 in taxes per year. Over 20 years, the IDA estimates the project would pay an additional $1.164 million in taxes. No permanent jobs are expected to be created, since the array would only require occasional maintenance visits from a technician.

Along with the tax benefits, the application touts the commitment to renewable energy and ability to help the county meet its sustainability goals, and residents of Tompkins County would be eligible for a 10% discount on their electric bills. The IDA is set to review the proposal at their meeting on Thursday. If approved, the developer aims to have the solar array online by late 2017.

Solar Jobs in Dryden?

More recently, another solar array manager and developer, Distributed Sun LLC of Washington D.C., and a co-developer of the Cornell array near the airport, has approached the town of Dryden with its own plans for a pair of larger solar arrays.

One site would be a 12 MW facility at 2150 Dryden Road, on the site of a former tree farm tucked away from the road and nearby homes. The other would be an 18 MW facility on multiple tracts of agricultural land along Turkey Hill Road – five of the tracts would be north of Stevenson Road south of Varna, and another five would be south of Stevenson Road towards Ellis Hollow Road. Potentially, if the electricity generation is comparable, the Dryden arrays, five times larger than Newfield’s output, would be enough to power 6,000 homes, or nearly every home in the town of Dryden.

Bharath Srinivasan, Senior Vice President of Operations for Distributed Sun, said that they would like to begin construction on the arrays by April and have them operational by the end of October. Srinivasan states he expects 200 to 250 jobs to be created locally, and another 100 nationwide. The project is likely to seek a PILOT agreement as well. Some of the Turkey Hill Road lands are tax-exempt Cornell property, and would end up paying taxes under a PILOT agreement.

Asked for comment about those job figures, Dryden Planning Director Ray Burger said “we’ll see what the impacts for this project proposal are.” Those figures may be counting the short-term construction work. Burger noted that Distributed Sun has yet to submit a formal project development application to the town, and that the town still has yet to pass a solar array law that would allow the project to happen. That is something they hope to tackle over the next few weeks.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.