New Paltz Town Board members are finding that doing right for the planet is not always simple. There’s state funding in place to install solar panels over capped landfills, but two out of three proposals to do that in New Paltz would also result in the deaths of acres and acres of trees, because trees also are massive solar collectors and the two cannot share the same space. Council members have been closely split on whether killing oxygen-producing, carbon-sequestering trees is better for the planet if it results in burning less fossil fuel to generate electricity. At their November 7 meeting they again met with some members of the ad-hoc committee tasked with studying the issue of solar on the landfill: Ted Nitza, the engineer volunteering to oversee the project, was joined by Janelle Peotter.
Nitza reported that after concerns about the trees-vs.-energy question were raised, committee members sat down with people from Sol Systems, the vendor with the preferred proposal, to revisit the pitch. They’ve also checked in with county resource recovery agency representatives about landfill regulations and have started talks to incorporate this theoretical solar farm into community choice aggregation, the system by which most town residents will automatically start purchasing less expensive electricity from entirely renewable sources. It might actually result in a lower cost per kilowatt hour for residents. As has been reported previously, members of the town’s environmental and open space committees have “signaled their support” for this project.
Further site visits have resulted in a modified proposal, which will use more of the actual landfill and sentence fewer trees to execution. The precise acreage won’t be clear until the proposal is moved through the process of applying for permits and finalizing design in response to concerns raised in meetings of permitting bodies, but a clearer figure should be available in a “couple of weeks,” according to council member Marty Irwin. Supervisor Neil Bettez promised to get more of the relevant documents posted on the town’s web site, excluding the actual contract as its terms have not yet been finalized.
One of the economic considerations is the fact that connecting this facility to the electric grid will cost an estimated $670,000, meaning that the more trees die, the more attractive the potential profit could be for the vendor. Board member David Brownstein would like to better understand the trade-offs between maximizing energy output and preserving life, essentially asking committee members to better show their work rather than just presenting their preference as a fait accompli.
What’s being asked is to cut down acres of forest which, according to council member Julie Seyfert-Lillis, would be designated as old-growth by the time the useful life of this facility winds down in 25 years. Sol Systems leaders anticipate the equipment lasting longer, and would like to have the option to renew in five-year increments once that initial lease term is completed. If and when the facility is closed down, there will be a plan in place to remove the equipment, but that wouldn’t restore the forest to the level of maturity it would otherwise have. Seyfert-Lillis signaled that, once the trees are cut down, she’d rather see the solar facility last as long as possible for that reason.
Adding pressure to this conversation is the fact that state tax breaks for projects of this type are already winding down. If board members don’t approve this deal by December 5, it’s unlikely the project would be able to reap the 2019 tax benefits for Sol Systems, and they will be smaller for a project begun in 2020.