Home Opinion Greg Blass Riverhead could see valuable benefits as regional solar energy center — but...

Riverhead could see valuable benefits as regional solar energy center — but only if the town plays smart

Let’s examine a suddenly new opportunity for Riverhead with solar panel farms, if only Riverhead plays its cards right.

Besides the STR Systems solar farm near the Riverhead Charter School, there are three others deserving our attention, all projects of sPower, a company from Utah still hoping also to buy the EPCAL site in order to set up a major solar farm there. While Riverhead dithers with its usual, prolonged fits and starts over EPCAL, sPower has been hard at work elsewhere in town.

In Calverton, sPower operates a 45-acre solar farm, generating 6.3 megawatts of power, selling it to LIPA’s power grid through a 20-year power purchase agreement. They are installing another one, soon to operate, on a nearby 109-acre sod farm with the same kind of deal with LIPA. These two solar farms will generate more than $1 million in property tax revenue to both the town and the school district of Riverhead.

A third solar farm is in the works on 290 acres of industrial zoned property in Calverton. Unlike sPower’s first two, Riverhead has not much more than a commenting role in approving this one. sPower needs only state approval for this project. The state’s Electric Generating Siting Board muscles in as the final authority because of this project’s size: enough power (36 megawatts) will be generated by this farm to power 8,500 homes.

For what it’s worth, the state siting board does not entirely exclude localities in approving large solar farms, over 25MWs, such as that which sPower is proposing on the 290-acre facility. Article 10, the state’s regulation in operation here, requires the state to seek nominations of citizens from the impacted municipalities, the town and the county, to serve on the siting board as it considers sPower’s application. But it would be hard to find someone willing to attend such meetings in Albany, even with the $200 daily stipend. And it’s merely token representation, with two votes out of the board’s seven.

With more expanded solar farms destined to crop up in Riverhead, we ought to take a page from another East End town, East Hampton. They have been quick to set conditions on a substantial wind farm approved for construction 30 miles east of their shore. That town has entered into a wisely crafted “Community Benefits Agreement” with the developer, Deepwater Wind South Fork LLC. In return chiefly for easements that the town has to approve for cables along the rights of way of town roads to a LIPA substation, the developer has committed $8.5 million for the cost of burying overhead lines, along with a water infrastructure fund, an inshore fisheries assistance fund, a marine infrastructure management and improvement fund, and to cooperate with the town on the design of interconnection facilities.

Consider as well the same kind of deal reached in Galesburg, Illinois, where they tied their hosting new solar power generating facilities with long-term electric rate breaks of 40 to 60 percent of the cost of electric power to city-owned buildings in addition to the normally levied property taxes.

Meanwhile, Riverhead is favored with only a marginal role in the approval process for not only this 300-acre solar farm project, but also many more that are sure to follow. Let’s remember that while we are one of Long Island’s smallest towns, with the lowest median income, the available, vacant land here sells/rents for less than elsewhere. Should our farmland go the way of rows and rows of solar panels?

Consider how we might learn from the UK, where solar farms rapidly multiply. British regulators focus locating these projects on non-agricultural land, or at least on farmland with low quality soils.

With cheap land, solar developers have another unique advantage in Riverhead while we watch and wonder: solar panels have seen a huge drop in their cost, up to 90 percent according to Bloomberg News, which also reports that the highest price solar power can earn in all the US, $45/megawatt hour, is right here on Long Island. That translates into hundreds of millions of dollars that these solar farms will sell over the years to LIPA. While such huge bucks change hands in Riverhead, our share of the deal will be property taxes. But think a minute: if we host so many profitable, electric generating facilities with such enormous potential for the power grid, should we not expect more?

Riverhead cannot depend on a minority voice on the state siting board, if indeed it ever gets one, to achieve what we deserve. It’s time to enlist our state representatives to make Albany work for us to arrange cheap electricity for our town buildings, and facilities such as our sewer plant, our police department and our schools. And don’t stop there. Significant electric rate breaks for other properties, including the businesses at EPCAL and elsewhere, have to be part of the deal. For this and more, Riverhead will have to lean on our state reps, and lean on them hard.

It’s time for Riverhead to get something for another “regional” contribution expected of us. We already play the “regional” nice guy when it comes to preserving farmland, more than any other town, and running a sewer and septic waste treatment facility that services other communities, endless units of affordable housing, and a host of social service and non-profit facilities, just to name some. Let’s hope Riverhead can reverse its tiring role of “giving” for all things “regional,” and start “getting” something in return. Riverhead now has a huge opportunity staring it right in the face. It has to take this fair and reasonable position and be clever about it. It’s a tall order for Riverhead, but we have to think big. If we don’t, no one will.

Last July 1st, outside the Town of Riverhead, sPower built, placed on-line (24.9 megawatts) and sold a solar farm on 150 acres at the former Tall Grass Golf Club in Shoreham, about 3,000 feet south of Route 25A in Brookhaven Town. What’s interesting here is the buyer, Duke Energy Renewables, based in North Carolina, which owns 21 wind and 64 solar projects in 14 states, sells power through the usual long-term contracts to such utilities as LIPA. You can bet that the big, corporate solar operators like Duke have their eyes on Riverhead.

Normally, in this column, there would be no urging for government to interfere with business. But this would not be interference. It’s about a small community’s seeking a share for bearing the burden of hosting these solar farms. Remember that government, at a higher level, turned the world of power utilities into a monopoly — and a badly regulated one at that. And as already mentioned, there’s precedent for a municipality to acquire a break in rates charged by utilities who seek a community’s special treatment where mere local property taxes just don’t cut it.

Solar farms have their shortcoming. They offer very little in the way of jobs as there is no operational activity. But the potential for clean and more affordable power makes them worth it. While India and China surge ahead of us in solar power, the largest solar farm on earth is spread out across the Sahara Desert in tiny Morocco, where their 580 megawatt solar farm, switched on in 2016, cuts that nation’s carbon emissions by hundreds of thousands of tons each year. Riverhead is glad to help our region reduce its carbon footprint, but it also deserves the economic help of reduced electric rates. We can do this. Riverhead has the chance to reap huge financial as well as environmental benefits, if only they plan it — and play it — smart.

SHARE
Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg