Town of Potsdam's new solar array building code section ready for hearing July 23
Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - 1:50 pm

BY CRAIG FREILICH

North Country This Week

POTSDAM – The Town of Potsdam has comprehensive new building code regulations on solar power arrays and has scheduled a hearing for 6 p.m. July 23 at Town Hall on Elm Street.

The new section of code was presented at the board’s July 9 meeting by attorney Kevin Murphy of the Wladis Law Firm of Syracuse.

With the ever-increasing emphasis on renewable power and realizing the existing code did not address questions about the safety and desirability in placement of larger solar arrays, the town declared a moratorium on granting building permits for any new commercial-scale photovoltaic electric projects until they revised the building code to account for the new technology.

They and many other municipalities in the state faced the same issue and have taken similar action: delay new projects, revise the code, and then new projects could be considered.

In January the town set the moratorium for six months, but took longer than expected to come up with a workable code revision due to the complexity of the issue and the relatively recent technology.

The proposed code language of 22 pages in Murphy’s presentation to the board is the product of guidance from New York State agencies including the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the work of other municipalities in the state working toward the same goal. Several meetings and several drafts were required to come up with Potsdam’s new code section, Murphy said.

It lays out in detail where and how solar arrays can be erected in the township outside the village with particular emphasis on larger arrays that are commercial in nature or which will generate electricity for off-site use.

It differentiates between building-integrated solar systems – for instance a roof surface made of solar panels – and a building-mounted system – panels mounted on an existing roof -- and between large- and small-scale ground mounted systems.

It takes into account the effects of glare from solar panels on neighbors.

Of note, Murphy said, was the issue of solar arrays on agricultural land.

Among the concerns is the condition of the land when the array is built, while it is operating, and when the array is no longer useful. Larger arrays – those of 20 acres or more – will require closer attention than smaller ones. The proposed code would require “to the greatest extent possible...using native, pollinator friendly plantings for ground cover instead of gravel, impervious surfaces or turfgrass” and maintaining those planting without pesticides. It would restrict the width and placement of access roads, and maintenance of drainage and erosion control. Many more provisions are listed in detail.

It also spells out procedures to be used when an array is to be removed, whether by an active operator or under abandonment conditions.

Councilor Toni Kennedy brought up the issue of farmland leased by an array operator who abandons the project. In such a case, she is concerned that the landowner will be stuck with the responsibility and expense of removing the equipment. She said this was a topic that came up at a recent meeting of the St. Lawrence County Environmental Management Council. Councilor Judy Rich wanted to know if there was any provision in the code for bonding or other guarantees to cover such a situation.

Murphy and Town Attorney Frank Cappello said that while there was no such provision in the code, there was nothing to prevent the parties from reaching an agreement along those lines.

The code takes into account a change in the way solar power can be transmitted to the utility power grid.

“Net metering” has been the method by which solar power producers, including small-scale home arrays, could send surplus power to the grid. Under this arrangement, the provider would get a straight credit from the utility -- one kilowatt hour of power sent to the grid for a reduction of one kilowatt hour on their bill from the utility.

Now the compensation from a utility for power added to the grid will be based on the price of electricity in a demand-and-supply accounting of what one kilowatt hour is worth depending on the time of day and the floating price set based on how much electricity is being used by customers at that moment. On sunny days it seems that would mean solar arrays will be pushing out more power potentially making each unit of power less remunerative.