ITHACA, N.Y. — “No matter where we go, we always find the first reaction is surprise…change is disconcerting.”

Bharath Srinivasan was conciliatory when asked whether the opposition to his firm’s plans for two solar arrays caught him by surprise. “No matter where you go, even if the community is generally for solar, people tend to be worried about change.”

Srinivasan is a Senior Vice President for Distributed Sun, a solar energy supplier based out of Washington D.C. The firm selected two sites in Dryden for their latest solar installation. One site would be an 11 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 Cornell 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. About 160 acres would be fenced in for the panel installations, and 59.94 acres would actually be covered with panels. About 7,500 houses would be powered by the arrays.

The project has generated considerable controversy since review began this past winter. Passionate public hearings and private discussions among residents have focused not so much on the importance of solar energy, but rather, why put it in Dryden?

To answer that, one has to do a little bit of research about Distributed Sun, and the solar energy industry.

“The siting process is key”

Distributed Sun is a young company. Started by two media entrepreneurs eight years ago, it originally focused on rooftop solar panels, but later expanded to remote sites as state laws evolved to encourage solar panel installations.

Although eight years isn’t an especially long time, the evolution of solar energy production has been rapid. Some of that has been brought about by improvements in technology –  thanks to improvements in performance and energy storage, the same 2 MW system that would have cost $12-$14 million in 2007, only costs $2-$3 million today.

But more important have been changes to state laws in regulations, In 2011, the New York State Public Service Commission voted to permit “remote net metering”, which allowed property owners to use property at other locations, site solar panels at that location, and have that credited to their bill at their meter – the panels no longer had to be on the same property as the buildings they powered. For institutions that wanted to do sustainable energy, it was a big boost to their efforts. They could adopt solar panels since they no longer had to site it on their campuses.

But for urban homeowners, it was still a challenge – not only did insurance liabilities, poorly sited roofs, and lack of space make on-site solar panels difficult, buying a separate property somewhere else was a big expense. So in fall 2015, the state rolled out “Community Distributed Generation“, which was basically remote net metering for customers. People could buy into a remote solar array, and be credited accordingly. A stipulation was added that anyone who needed more than 25 MW (equivalent to thousands of homes, so big enterprises) couldn’t buy more than 40% of a community array, since the whole point of these community solar laws is to allow residential customers without the resources or property to take advantage of solar power.

Now, as for locating for panels, it gets a little tricky. According to Srinivasan, the state has set geographic limits as to where an array can be located with respect to its customers. An array in Buffalo or Albany can’t be used to power New York City homes, because community solar arrays are intended for local users. For Tompkins County, the supply has to come from Tompkins or nearby counties.

Secondly, the state is incentivizing Tompkins County because of needed upgrades to the local power grid – instead of utility customers, the solar company takes on the responsibility when building an array to upgrade the systems to the nearest substation, which in Dryden’s case is in East Ithaca. About five miles of electrical lines are being upgraded. Since upgrade costs can rise quickly ($1 million/mile), solar arrays are still dependent on locations close to the existing power grid, and because of choke points in the grid (the substations), the options become more limited.

As a result, when a suitable location is found, it’s typical for a group of solar arrays to be built together, with the property divided into 2 MW sub-sections. 2 MW is the maximum allowed by a NYS PSC law dating from the mid-1990s, when it was considered the maximum feasible amount of solar energy able to be generated on a very large piece of land. The 2 MW subdivisions are considered acceptable practice by state authorities.

“The siting process is key,” says Srinivasan. “We have a team that looks at access to power grid, were the grid is usable, the cost we have to pay to upgrade the grid which has to be defrayed by the projects. We check for slopes (less than 8%), wetlands, we try to avoid prime agricultural land, we check with the USDA for soil types. The Dryden Road {site} has a few acres of prime land, but most is not. We prefer that they have very little street frontage so that they’re not really visible, but if they are we provide plantings to buffer the impact. We’ll be planting 300 trees and 500 bushes with these projects…even by taking out {existing} trees and putting in panels, the net gain is 108 tons of CO2 saved per year. Trees that come down are donated for firewood, carpentry, or if poor quality, mulch. We’re careful about how we select sites.”

Still, for all this carefulness, the choice of sites has been the subject of much consternation and controversy.

Looking North from the Willow Glen Cemetery. Image courtesy town of Dryden.

“It would be a disgrace”

There is no shortage of concerned letters in the town of Dryden’s mailbox and inbox. The letters have come from all over – not just town residents, but from other towns, cities and even other states. Some plead, some threaten, and a few drip with rage.

“Vote NO to a mega-solar project,” reads one letter.

“Solar is an intermittent energy source,” reads another. “The claim that it improves electric grid reliability is simply not true.”

A third threatens political repercussions to any vote in favor of large-scale solar. “I’m STRONGLY against massive solar farm development in Dryden. Anyone who supports will NEVER get my vote again.”

Most of the debate centers around Willow Glen cemetery. As proposed, the southernmost Dryden Road panels and the northernmost cemetery plots would be a couple hundred feet apart. While a green screen of trees and bushes is proposed, it will take time to grow in. But for some, even the obscured presence of the panels is an affront to what they describe as precious views from sacred land.

“It would be a disgrace to see any ugly apparition appear north or any side of the cemetery.” “{T}he lack of respect for citizens’ genuine concern about desecration of the final resting space for community members, is the height of arrogance and certainly not reflective of the type of community that places a value on its sacred spaces.” “I beg that you will thoughtfully reconsider your choice of this site and keep the area surrounding the cemetery as pastoral and peaceful as it has been for many, many years.”

The town meetings have been emotionally charged as well. More than 100 residents turned out for the public hearing last month, with many against the solar panels, and others in favor, citing the need to support and encourage renewable energy sources.

“We can do this, we need to do this”

For Marie McRae, the debate hits close to home. The Dryden farmer is a founder of the Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition, and sits on the board of Solar Tompkins, a local solar energy advocacy group.

“A friend of mine came up to me and she didn’t know I was part of the organizing for this, and she started to tell me how this would affect her life, how the panels would take away the natural environment she would walk past. She said, ‘Surely they could put it somewhere else, do it somewhere else?’ I had to look her in the eye and say ‘there isn’t somewhere else and they can’t put it somewhere else, and I’m sorry for the change, it is hard.’””

“For people who don’t yet understand that renewables are the most important thing to do for our grandchildren…this came as a big shock to them,” said McRae. “Many acres of panels is a big deal, it’s a big project. However, we’ve gone through a lot of changes over time. I bet that when they started to string wires along the road for electric and telephones, that that had a lot of resistance also. I believe that once they’re in place, and people get used to them, that they’ll be more accepted. It’s hard to make changes, and it’s hard when it’s in your front yard, I get that.”

“I’m coming from a place where I thoroughly believe we must do this, not for me, for someone’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’m a nature lover, I love the birds and animals and trees around me, and I do it for that. I want the next generation to be able to enjoy what I have enjoyed, I don’t want to use it all up, burn it all up. We have the technology, we can do this, we need to do this.”

McRae was bothered by arguments saying that the views from the cemetery were their reason for opposition. “The people who are most upset about this going in behind the cemetery are touting the sacred space, how we would ruin it. I’ve talked to a number of people, there are cemeteries near high-rises, highways…my point is, the cemetery is sacred space that should be honored, but the view, the scenery is not necessarily sacred space.”

“We’re trying to give this an honest hearing”

Ray Burger is the town of Dryden’s planning director. In his role, he hears both sides, and has to maintain an impartial approach to reviewing the project application.

When asked about his impression of the solar arrays, he expressed cautious approval. “We’re generally trying to give this project a chance of success. There are opinions on both sides, and we’re trying to give this an honest hearing and evaluating it in total. I think anyone who’s faced with a project next door will be concerned with its immediate impacts. They’re not looking at the community as a whole, they’re focused on their fence line.”

Burger, Srinivasan and McRae noted that while the project has generated significant debate, the outreach effort has been engaging and constructive. About 70 town residents and some town board members attended a meeting on the project at the Ellis Hollow Community Center, while Burger and a hundred other attendees paid a visit to a similar community meeting at the Neptune Fire Hall on North Street.

“I’d say the conversation was respectful, getting issues and concerns on the table. There was a little inter-audience banter, but by and large it was good civil discourse,” said Burger.

“Bharath {Srinivasan} has really showed that he and his company are willing to talk with people and listen to concerns, they’ve gone to every meeting and met with the neighbors, and he’s made many changes in his plan. His willingness to work with people and get this to a place where we can get this put in has been amazing to me,” McRae lauded.

“It’s up to a developer to sit down with residents and have a friendly chat and address their concerns,” said Srinivasan. “We’re happy with the feedback from our meetings, and we’ve incorporated the public feedback – we changed our fences based off the recommendations of a Dodge Road resident who brought us out on a field trip and showed us an attractive, cost-efficient fence, so we dropped the chain link fence in favor of that. It’s been constructive feedback. We can’t accommodate all, but we have accommodated many.”

The next meeting on the project will be on the 26th at 7 PM at the Neptune Fire Hall. “{The project is} a special use permit app, and the first step is environmental review,” said Burger. “That’s all we’ll probably get through, there will be subsequent meetings. This a continuing hearing, although we advertised like it’s new since it’s been revised. It’s likely to stay open beyond the 4/26 meeting, but it’s the town board’s call.”

Srinivasan stressed that he is still open to more feedback as the process continues. “If you’re still concerned, please come sit down with me and tell me your concerns. We will sit down with you and work to mitigate it, make every effort. We want this to be sustainable and we’ll work with residents to mitigate impacts. The project benefits the community, the planet, the local residents, but all this is only possible if the project moves forward.”

Brian Crandall

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