Chautauqua Residents Voice Concern Over Solar Project | News, Sports, Jobs

Peter McAuliffe, director of development for Omni Navitas, is pictured detailing a solar array project during a public hearing Monday in the town of Chautauqua. The 5-megawatt solar project will encompass 30 acres with 16,000 to 17,000 solar panels.
P-J photos by Nikk Holland

MAYVILLE — Despite the push for green energy throughout the state, many town of Chautauqua residents are voicing opposition to a proposed solar project.

At Monday’s town board meeting, a public hearing was held for a presentation by Peter McAuliffe, Omni Navitas director of development. Residents had a chance to ask questions and voice their concerns over the proposal.

Omni aims at installing the 5-megawatt solar array on a Hartfield-Stockton Road property. The project spans about 30 acres and will have about 16,000 to 17,000 solar panels.

The power generated by the solar panels will feed into power lines already along the road.

The power will be fed into the grid and “dispersed wherever it’s needed,” McAuliffe said, but there will be an opportunity for residents and businesses to subscribe to the solar panels and receive “a little discount on electricity.”

A Chautauqua resident is pictured voicing his concerns of the proposed solar project in the town. No resident in attendance during Monday’s public hearing voiced support for the solar project.

One Chautauqua resident voiced their concern over what happens when the solar panels deteriorate, shut down or the 25-year lease on the property is up. After 25 years, the landowner could want the solar array removed for various reasons, which would trigger the decommissioning process.

McAuliffe assured the resident that a “decommissioning bond (will be) in place prior to construction,” which coincides with a local town law.

“That will take into account making sure the property owner, or the town, is not left at the end of the day, 25 years from now, having to remove it,” McAuliffe said.

“How many million dollars will the bond be for?” she asked. “Because projects in other parts of the country show that the biggest problem is when these projects end, there’s no bond. It costs millions and millions of dollars to make up for the damage.”

McAuliffe said Omni bases its estimations off the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, which runs the community solar program in the state. That bond rate will be roughly $30,000 per megawatt, which doesn’t include any salvageable or recyclable materials.

Town Supervisor Don Emhardt said the decommissioning of the project at the end of its operation is the most important part, because “(his) generation got left with a lot of stuff like that.”

Roger Clausner, owner of the property next to the site of the solar project, was present Monday at the hearing to voice his concerns as a neighbor.

“There’s a lot of questions to be answered,” Clausner said. “At the last meeting, you (said) if these panels were leaking, you said possibly 24 hours you could have somebody out there. But in 24 hours, you have leaking into the ground. I have a well that is probably going to be 200 feet away from where these panels are going to be. You have a creek out back, too. Everybody is talking about 25 years from now, but what about now?”

“You could not tell me about the heat that these things put off,” Clausner continued. “You’re talking 17,000 panels. You can’t tell me that when the wind blows from Mayville and comes over the panels, that my place is not going to jump up 10 or 15 degrees. How am I supposed to live with that?

McAuliffe assured Clausner that a 5-megawatt project like this one would not impact the temperature on his property.

Clausner disagreed.

“The town people are going to have to look at this,” he responded. “Every time they drive up that beautiful road, they’re going to look at this nasty, black sea. Right now, they’ve got corn planted there. If this project doesn’t go through, (the land is) usable. That’s what we need in Chautauqua County.”

Clausner also pointed out that there is a snowmobiling trail that goes through the proposed project site, and a removal of that trail could mean a loss of yearly revenue from those who come to the area to snowmobile.

Another resident who lives close to the site discussed the impacts the project will have on the view of the area.

“I think it’s a great disservice to the people who live across from it,” he said. “They have to look at it every day. The people who earn the money, who are building it — they’re not going to be around to look at it. These people moved there, like I did, to be in a rural area. You don’t want to look across the street and see something like this enclosed by a chain link fence.”

McAuliffe said part of the reason Omni chose this site was due to the “existing screening” from the trees which will remain around the edge of the field to obstruct the view.

Another resident questioned where the panels will be made. McAuliffe said the decision regarding sourcing of the panels will not be made until closer to the construction date.

Board member Tom Carlson asked the residents present just what type of energy would be best suitable for them.

“This is our third different hearing on power operations in this town,” Carlson said. “We talked about fracking, wind towers, now we’re talking about solar. We’d like to draw our direction from you to hear what you want, but nobody wants any of this stuff. Where are we supposed to get our power from?”

“The general public knows nothing,” one resident answered. “I think the biggest thing you could give to the people of the community … is a moratorium. The products are changing, the price is going way up because of the need for rare minerals that are very limited throughout the world. I don’t know how they can even cost this out because it’s going up so high at this point.”

“The biggest fallacy of all of it is the number of rare minerals that are toxic, and the fossil fuels that are used to build these things, transport them, to operate them,” she continued. “Nuclear is an option. It’s just a rush to judgment here. Let’s see what else is coming down the pipe. These proposals now … are all in a hurry. Take a couple years before you destroy this land we all love.”

“The fact that this is going to infringe on the Amish people, who are not involved in any of the online stuff, who don’t know what’s going on — to me, that’s criminal,” the resident.

Another resident brought up his concern over water contamination.

“It’s something that concerns me because of what we’re in right now with Mayville’s water system that has been contaminated by PFAS family chemicals,” he said. “My concern now is where we are with contamination we’re already blessed with, and the fact it’s going to cost $1 million to filter this out of one well that the village is trying to get back in service.”

Because of the project’s proximity to Chautauqua Lake, he is concerned that PFAS (per- and plyfluoroalkyl substances) might contaminate the lake and the filtration of these chemicals out of the lake will cost the town large amounts of money.

“I doubt a developer is willing to put up a bond for that kind of money in the event that something bad like this happens,” he finished.

Another resident voiced his concerns over funding.

“Historically, the government is willing to pay anything to get these things done,” he said. “This has become politicized, where the big guys are saying, ‘Hey, all this money is coming here, lets make these projects something special.’ They get all the money, they put them in without one care ultimately about what happens at the end. This is what concerns me, the politicization of the whole solar empire.”

McAuliffe assured the man that the project is privately funded.

Fred Johnson, owner of Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield, wonders why a solar project is being placed in a region of the state known to have low amounts of sun exposure, and he voiced his concerns over state subsidization.

“To say that New York state is not subsidizing this project is, gracefully put, disingenuous,” Johnson said. “There’s a mandate on the energy coming out of it to be paid at roughly twice the market rate of electricity right now, and that mandate comes right back on the rate payers.”

Another resident noted that there are other energy options coming in the near future.

“It’s still early, but there is modular nuclear that is coming down the line,” he said. “That may be the solution. It’s based off the technology the Navy uses, and it’s going to be coming a lot faster than people think. That’s something that would be small, contained and would be something that may actually work in this county.”

One resident voiced their concerns over whether this solar array project opens the door for other projects like it to construct more solar arrays.

“Usually there is a business plan associated with, not just a single project, but a comprehensive strategy to look at an area to which they would invest their time and resources to expand a footprint,” he said. “If the review of this gives the approval to move forward, that’s a door-opener for other private owners and property owners.”

McAuliffe assured the man that no other landowners in Chautauqua have reached out to Omni Navitas to initiate more solar projects, and the company is not looking to add more projects to the town.

Although Omni has no plans beyond the Hartfield-Stockton Road site, there are “four or five” other developers looking at the town of Chautauqua as a possible destination for solar projects, Emhardt said.

“We’ve listened to all of you tonight, and we’ve hired an engineer,” Emhardt said. “We want to make sure we get it right. We’re going to consult with our engineer and our attorney, and next month re-open this hearing. It’s not an easy decision for us to make.”

“As you hear, there’s a lot of opposition to it,” Emhardt said. “It’s true we’ll make more money off these solar panels than an empty field or a farm field, but that’s not really consideration in the town of Chautauqua.”

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