Breaking Down the Barriers to Renewable Energy in New York State

By Angela Hotaling, NYLCV

New York State has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change and increasing use of renewable energy is a central component of this plan. In 2016, New York State adopted an ambitious Clean Energy Standard (CES), requiring renewables to provide 50% of the state’s electricity by 2030. More recently, in December 2018, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to transition the state to 70% clean energy by 2030, and 100% by 2040. These significant goals require a rapid and comprehensive transition to renewable energy generation statewide, one that will necessitate cooperation and collaboration between all stakeholders and local communities. However, a number of barriers exist that make it difficult to site wind and solar projects in New York State.

The New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF) recently released a background paper laying out many of the challenges to siting solar and wind projects in our state and offering preliminary recommendations for breaking down these barriers and moving the needle forward on clean energy.

As a state with constitutional home rule, many New York communities have initiated local laws and ordinances that restrict solar and wind projects. For example, local moratoria on large-scale renewable energy projects are meant to give local communities more time to enact regulations. While local communities should play a key role in planning and siting renewable projects within their community, these outright suspensions often delay development and dissuade potential investments in renewables. Other municipalities have outdated local codes and zoning laws that create unnecessary complexities for the use of solar.

For large-scale installations (over 25 MW), Article 10 of New York State’s Public Service Law requires developers to engage in a lengthy and complex permitting process that, as of December 2018, has only resulted in full certification for one project, while dozens have been caught in the queue for years.

Transmission and storage of renewable energy provides additional barriers. Currently, New York does not have enough existing capacity to support its own clean energy goals. Further, developing new transmission lines and expanding existing infrastructure is expensive and complex, and not progressing at a pace that is required to meet the CES. Finally, there exists a significant amount of public opposition to large scale renewable projects, which has slowed their expansion statewide. Communities have voiced concerns with the environmental and economic impacts of proposed installations, which often require a large amount of land and are not always compatible with existing land uses.

Building on work by The Nature Conservancy and ACE-NY’s previous paper, NYLCVEF’s paper proposes five preliminary policy recommendations for addressing these siting challenges. First, the complex and contentious Article 10 process should be reformed to facilitate permitting of large-scale renewable projects. Doing so should include clarifying provisions within the Article, such as the definition of what constitutes an “unreasonably burdensome” local law, and improvements to planning and procedure for developers. In addition, the report recommends that localities utilize resources from NYSERDA and consider incorporating renewable development into their long-term land-use planning. For example, previously disturbed areas such as brownfields and landfills may serve as optimal locations for solar installations, but local policies are needed to encourage development in these areas.

Similarly, developers and state agencies are encouraged to engage communities as early in the process as possible, so that residents can voice their concerns and collaborate to advance renewable projects. Educating the public about the benefits of renewable energy could also serve this goal, and should be a priority among state agencies and interested stakeholders involved in renewable energy siting. Finally, developers and host communities are encouraged to explore options to ensure municipalities benefit from renewable installations. Investing back into communities will provide co-benefits for developers, investors, and localities, and ultimately accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in a way that can be sustained over the long term.

NYLCVEF is holding a series of roundtable discussions across the state to discuss barriers to siting renewable energy projects and identify concrete solutions. Through convening a range of stakeholders, including community representatives, renewable companies, utilities, partners in the environmental community, local governments, and state agencies in productive conversations, our goal is to identify local issues related to siting and develop specific recommendations for each location, incorporate them into an advocacy campaign, and help New York move closer to achieving its clean energy goals.