Permitting for big wind farms could get a lot faster under new Cuomo proposals

Feb 24, 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants 70% of the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. That's got state agencies looking at ways to speed up permitting for wind and solar projects, worrying opponents of larger developments.

For proponents of large renewable projects, New York’s permitting process is a labyrinth of regulations that can take years to navigate. To opponents it’s just the opposite: a fast track to approval with minimal public input.

Now, under new proposals unveiled Friday by the Cuomo administration, that process could be getting a complete rewrite.

“You look at the temperature rising — it is frightening,” Gov. Cuomo said during his Jan. 21 budget address, calling on the state to do more to combat the climate crisis.

“New York has to be the state that stands up and says once and for all: We have to do more, and we have to do it faster. And let’s pledge the largest amount of any state in the United States of America!” said Cuomo.

Those ambitious goals are laid out in a new law passed last year — the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — which mandates that the state’s electricity should come from 70% renewable sources by 2030 and completely carbon-free by 2040.

That rushed timeline is having an effect on state agencies, which are scrambling to find ways to get more renewable projects online.

An “emergency rule” to prevent construction delays

Take the Feb. 13 meeting of the Board of Electric Generation Siting and the Environment, often just called the siting board, where an emergency ruling was made to eliminate additional hearings on projects.

It used to be that wind developers would work with counties and towns individually for their projects, a process that could sometimes get mired in local politics. In 2011, the state came in and created what’s known as Article 10 to streamline the review.

At the February meeting, the board agreed developers will not have to go through any extra review for changes to their already-certified projects as long as the modifications are “environmentally beneficial or benign.”

Bob Rosenthal, counsel to the board, said the edit was necessary for developers to take advantage of soon-to-expire tax credits and construction timelines.

“Any delay could cause a developer to miss this year’s construction season, and worse, the project to be uneconomical and thus abandoned,” he told members.

Public comment is now open on the emergency ruling, which will be voted on one more time by the board before becoming permanent. 

Slowgoing for a Lewis County wind project

A wind farm project slated for Lowville and Harrisberg is one of those that’s had its start date pushed back amid its Article 10 review.

“I thought it was a good decision, I really did,” said Lowville town supervisor Randall Schell.

His town has been courting wind and solar projects like this one, called the Number Three Wind project by developer Invenergy. Schell said he’s grateful for Article 10 for helping towns conduct the appropriate, often costly, studies to get these projects off the ground, and thinks the rule change is reasonable.

“The fact that the tower moved 300 or 400 feet, sometimes it was to get further away from a wetland,” he said. “Then to say that that constituted a need for a modified plan didn’t seem fair to the potential developer.”

Marguerite Wells, project manager for Invernergy, agreed. She said the most recent rule change won’t benefit their Lewis County project, but the suite of new proposals by the governor could help get more projects off the ground more quickly.

“Streamlining the process to build renewables is clearly on the radar of the administration and they are working to improve it. And to that end, we are grateful for the attention to this problem,” she said.

Wells said they hope to get the Number Three Wind project up and running by 2022.

Opponents call permitting changes a renewable industry handout

These proposals still rankle some who are wary of larger renewable projects in their communities, such as Save Ontario Shores, a citizens group opposed to planned wind projects in western New York.

Gary Abraham is an attorney representing the group. He said this emergency ruling is yet another giveaway to developers at the expense of local stakeholders.

“Article 10 already gave the energy industry a fast track for approval of their process. This new emergency rulemaking gives them an even faster track,” said Abraham.

He said they are supportive of the state’s climate goals, but don’t believe climate change should be used as a justification for cutting regulations and forcing large industry on small towns.

“There are several municipalities that are being asked to host these projects that are opposed to them,” he said. “They’re typically on the order of 100 square miles, they have substantial noise and visual impacts, and they just turn the character of the community upside down.”

Abraham says it’s fairly obvious the state intends to completely scrap Article 10, a move they may consider litigating over.

Something opponents and proponents of wind farms both agree on is that the state will likely have to do a lot more than regulatory tweaks to be carbon-free in 20 years.