Here comes the sun

Solar is here — the latest in a series of energy schemes that have tried to sink roots into the rocky soil of the Catskills, only to wither and die off. Maybe this new weed is tough enough to survive.

On Tuesday, March 13, state officials announced the completion of the largest community solar project in New York State, a 2.7 megawatt array in Callicoon run by a startup called Delaware River Solar. The array is made up of about 9800 solar panels, and will power about 350 businesses and homes, including mine. We signed up with Delaware River Solar last month.

For years, I’ve been kicking around the idea of powering my house with the sun. It’s a no-go, even if I had a few tens of thousands of dollars to burn on it; I have a Victorian with umpteen drunken gables, and a yard the size of a postage stamp. One time we had a solar contractor come out, take one look at the demented non-Euclidean geometry of our roof, and shake her head in dismay.

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Compared to all my futile home solar schemes, signing up with Delaware River Solar was astonishingly easy. We uploaded a copy of our last NYSEG bill, signed a couple of forms, and that was that. No money down, no locked-in contract. As the project generates power, we’ll get credits on our electricity bill, and pay Delaware River Solar for the power at 90 percent of what NYSEG charges. If we don’t like it, we can cancel. So far, so good.

The Delaware River Solar project sits on 10 acres on dead-end Baer Road, on a property owned by Callicoon resident Richard Winter, an investment banker turned beef farmer who is now, as he puts it, “farming the sun.”

That’s Callicoon the hamlet, not Callicoon the town — upstate New York is confusing. The town in which Winter’s project lies is the Sullivan County town of Delaware, a rural municipality on the banks of the Delaware River that is home to about 2,670 people. When Winter first proposed the project a few years ago, town officials were skeptical. By last February, the project had their unanimous support.

The town of Delaware is leading the way on community solar, but the rest of the Catskills isn’t far behind. Towns across the region are taking a closer look at solar energy, its impact on the landscape, and how it fits in with their zoning, taxation and land use laws. Many have enacted short-term moratoriums on solar development while they study the issue.

Not all energy projects are created equal. My own little corner of the Catskills region, in Delaware County, rejected wind power about a decade ago. The anti-wind movement divided the community along familiar locals-vs.-transplants lines of class and culture, and ultimately reshaped voting rights in New York State.

I was intensely disappointed to see those local wind power initiatives fail, a position that I’m well aware puts me at odds with a lot of my friends and neighbors. On the other hand, the movement built by wind power opponents was ready to act when natural gas drillers took aim at upstate New York a few years later — and fracking was a bullet well dodged, if you ask me. The alternate universe in which the waterlogged Catskills landscape is pocked with injection wells and open frac ponds isn’t one I want my kid growing up in.

So far, solar projects like Delaware River are attracting some of the same complaints that wind power got in its early days. Neighbors are concerned about the “viewshed,” and about their property values. As with any technology, there is a certain amount of FUD (“Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt”) being spread about solar arrays. They give you cancer! They suck the life out of the sun! They microwave your brain in the night! (They don’t.)

The difference, this time, is that projects like Delaware River’s are getting to the finish line despite the trepidation. Some of that is surely due to the willingness of the solar companies to work with the community. Winter, who as a Callicoon resident will have to live with his own creation, revised his plans for the Baer Road site three times in response to neighbors’ concerns. He has agreed to a variety of conditions, including planting native vegetation around the site and not using herbicides.

As projects like Delaware River Solar bloom and spread across the region, we will increasingly be asked to consider how much inconvenience we can live with. No form of energy is without some cost, even if that cost is just having to look at some solar panels across the street instead of a farmer’s green fields.

It is easy to put up with the environmental costs of energy production, when they are being borne by someone else — people living in the coal fields of Appalachia, or in the evacuation zones of nuclear power plants, or below hydroelectric dams that have forever altered the rivers and streams that drive their vast turbines. Every now and then, a new energy technology catches on in the region, and gives us a chance to make a choice. It takes some fortitude to decide to pay a small cost yourself, rather than shuffle a larger one off to a stranger in a community far away.

Compared to the alternatives, solar feels like a good fit for the Catskills. Time will tell.

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