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Farmland Board Pushes For Decommission Proposals

Decisions on what to do with the former NRG plant in Dunkirk are difficult. There was no exit strategy when it was constructed.

It’s the shining example of why a county advisory board is expressing concern about the number of renewable energy projects coming to the area and is urging county officials to ensure good plans are in place when the projects are no longer in use.

The Agriculture and Farmland Protection recently sent a letter to the county Legislature. In it, the board notes it takes seriously its charge to protect priority farmland and to support agriculture as a viable economic driver within the county.

“As such, the board has become increasingly aware that renewable energy projects may cause issues of countywide concern. Once lands are removed from agricultural production and replaced with renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind projects, they are no longer suitable for food production. Moreover, if renewable energy projects are not properly decommissioned after their lifecycle, this burden will then fall to the landowners and possibly the county. We ask that the county carefully consider the potential impacts of these projects, and be proactive in its approach,” wrote Steve Kimball, chairman of the county Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board.

Kimball noted that Chautauqua County has a very robust agricultural industry. Despite declines in agricultural activity, agriculture remains a significant economic driver. He cited a 2017 USDA Agricultural Census, which states that most farms within the county reported profit gains. “Net farm income has continued to increase, and the value of farmland has continued to rise. There are also many agricultural operations that rely on rented lands. Often times, these farms have collectively invested much of their own money in improvements to leased lands that allow them to farm it productively,” he said.

With the push for increasing renewable energy production, Kimball noted that local farmers are now competing for use of priority agricultural lands with renewable energy developers which are subsidized by the state and federal governments. “With the subsidies available to these developers, they are able to offer leases far in excess over the established agricultural market value that our farms are currently receiving and/or paying,” he said.

Kimball noted that renewable energy projects are not just proposed on the county’s lowest productivity soils; developers choose sites based on their proximity to transmission lines, size of parcels, terrain slopes, and environmental characteristics.

He also shared that if decommissioning plans are insufficiently structured, developers may be able to avoid the fiscal responsibility of decommissioning and reclaiming a site when it is no longer profitable for them. “Examples of this can already be seen with the ineffective solar water heaters on the roofs of dairy barns throughout New York State,” he said.

Kimball stated that while the board prioritizes the rights of landowners and the local autonomy, it also recognize that that landowners may not be sufficiently prepared to address these larger issues. “Since many landowners and municipalities are facing the same concerns, it would make sense to address these issues on a regional scale. For this reason, the board encourages the county to investigate how to best ensure that solar developers bear the financial and physical responsibility of decommissioning these projects and reclaiming these sites once their lifecycle is complete,” he said.

Still, Kimball said the board believes that renewable energy projects and agriculture can co-exist harmoniously. “Farmers and landowners should benefit from the diversification of their businesses. However, priority farmland is an asset that should be valued and protected. The board believes the county should take a proactive stance to protect itself and its residents from losing agricultural resources and from incurring additional financial burdens in the future,” he said.

Mark Geise, deputy county executive for economic development and the county Industrial Development Agency’s chief executive officer, understood the board’s concerns. “We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right protections in place so that we’re sure that they can be decommissioned and properly disposed of,” he said during a phone interview.

Geise noted the former NRG plant was constructed without a decommission plan. “Everyone thought it would be there forever. … No one would ever thought it would not do what it’s supposed to do,” he said.

Geise said decommission plans are required for all renewable energy projects. He said approval of the plans are usually the responsibility of the local municipality. Those plans also have to be submitted to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for approval as well.

Because of the plethora of energy projects, Geise said the county is trying to assist in the process. “One of the county attorneys is doing research in order to develop a template that can be shared with all of the municipalities,” he said.

Geise also noted that the county IDA generally does not offer tax incentives for renewable energy projects that aren’t given approval from the local government. “With all of these projects, with the IDA we only move forward if municipality wants it,” he said.

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