Clean Energy Transmission Battle Pits Speed Against Worker, Farm Protections

The Assembly and Senate want to beef up labor standards and farmland protections for clean energy projects. Developers say that would slow down the energy transition.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   April 5, 2024
Transmission lines running through the North Country.
In New York, there aren’t enough wires to move new clean energy from the remote areas where most solar and wind farms are built to the population centers where the most energy gets used. | New York Power Authority

It has become almost a cliche to say that New York is behind on building renewable energy. One factor? There aren’t enough wires to move new clean energy from the remote areas where most solar and wind farms are built to the population centers where the most energy gets used. And New York, like much of the country, is painfully overdue to string up more of those wires.

The state office that reviews wind and solar farms, the Office of Renewable Energy Siting, or ORES, doesn’t currently issue permits for transmission lines. Now, Governor Kathy Hochul wants to speed up the process by turning it into a “one stop-shop.”

Her proposed RAPID Act would task ORES with permitting transmission projects alongside wind and solar farms. Crucially, it would require the agency to approve or deny any clean energy permits that come before it within one year — including transmission lines, which currently take an average of two years to permit.

“It’s probably the biggest thing that the state can do on its own” to get more renewables plugged into the grid, said Patrick McClellan, policy director at the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Democrats in the legislature broadly share Hochul’s goal to plug renewables in faster. But they aren’t satisfied with how the governor wants to go about it. They want to put new checks and balances on ORES, requiring more public hearings and local input on siting rules. The Assembly wants to add new labor protections for a wide range of clean energy projects, while the Senate wants to create a new fee for solar projects sited on farmland. Renewable developers argue that both proposals could slow clean energy development at a critical moment — exactly the opposite of what the RAPID Act intends.

Hochul’s version of the bill would “address the incredibly significant transmission constraints that are hampering renewables deployment,” according to the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a trade group for wind and solar companies. It said the legislature’s version would be worse than nothing; it would “delay us in meeting ALL of our climate law goals.”

Four days after the state’s April 1 budget deadline, it remains unclear whether either side will prove willing to compromise. Some lobbyists working on the legislation say the Hochul administration is sticking to its guns, and might prefer to drop the RAPID Act from the budget rather than agreeing to the changes. But sources say energy issues have yet to be seriously discussed at closed-door budget talks, as legislative leaders and the governor’s office continue to haggle over housing policy and topline revenue and spending items. (Asked about the RAPID Act, the governor’s office sent only its stock statement about the budget.)

Legislators, for their part, remain adamant that the state can catch up on its climate targets while also folding in a range of other goals, as New York seeks to set a national standard for climate justice.

“We deal with competing priorities every single day,” said Senate energy committee chair Kevin Parker. “Yes, we need clean energy generation and clean energy transmission up and running as soon as possible — and ‘as soon as possible’ means … making sure that we’re not doing more harm than good with with what we’re trying to do.”

The RAPID Act would require clean energy permits to be approved or denied within one year — including transmission lines, which currently take an average of two years to permit. | Colin Kinniburgh

The office at the center of the debate is a relatively new creation. Soon after New York passed its landmark climate law in 2019, lawmakers decided the state needed to permit renewable energy projects faster if it was going to meet its mandate of decarbonizing the grid. The Office of Renewable Energy Siting, established in the state’s 2020 budget, was charged with making that happen.

By law, ORES has one year to review the large-scale wind and solar projects that come before it. Spokesperson Nathan Stone says it has so far managed to beat that deadline, averaging eight months from application to final permit. (Altogether, the office has granted 15 permits since January 2022 and denied one. It has 15 more in its queue.)

ORES is currently housed within the Department of State, a grab-all agency overseeing everything from basic government administration to mixed martial arts. The RAPID Act would move it into the state’s main energy regulator and longtime permitting hub, the Department of Public Service. By bringing wind, solar, and transmission projects under one roof, the bill aims to ensure that renewables grow in tandem with the grid on which they depend.

The RAPID Act would extend ORES’s one-year deadline to all projects, including major transmission lines. (The state already has a one-year deadline for transmission permits, but it routinely grants extensions. McClellan hopes that handing the baton to an agency whose explicit mandate is to move fast will change that.)

It would also give regulators new carrots and sticks to spur utilities to connect small-scale renewables, like rooftop solar, in a timely way.

The Assembly and Senate are on board with widening ORES’s mandate — but with some key caveats.

“On the Senate side, they’re taking this as an opportunity to sort of re-litigate how we’re siting renewable energy projects” and “build in a lot of requirements on the applicants,” said Conor Bambrick, director of policy at Environmental Advocates NY.

The most contentious part of the Senate’s proposal is a host of new requirements aimed at protecting agriculture, including a new “farmland conservation” fee for solar projects. The state would subject developers to a one percent surcharge for every acre of designated “prime farmland” where they build. The revenue would go to a fund aimed at protecting farmland statewide.

Leading the push for the farmland protections is Senate agriculture committee chair Michelle Hinchey of the Hudson Valley, who has regularly sparred with ORES over what she sees as its pattern of steamrolling over community concerns and agricultural land. She said accelerating clean energy construction and protecting farmland are both critically important, and compatible, goals.

“The cost of losing access to our prime farmland is not just a problem for our food supply,” she told New York Focus. “Agricultural land is a core part of the solution to the climate crisis.” When maintained right, soil absorbs carbon from the air, so the state has been promoting farming practices that help achieve this.

“If we’re taking farm businesses out of the possibility of sequestering carbon, we’re going to be chasing our tail,” Hinchey said.

The influential Farm Bureau backs the Senate’s proposal and is actively lobbying lawmakers on it, spokesperson Steve Ammerman told New York Focus.

And the Assembly seems to be on board. “We want to find that balance between protecting our valuable farmland and food supply and obviously reaching our goals,” the chamber’s energy chair Didi Barrett said in March.

Climate groups share these broad goals — but they say the state is already striking the balance well enough.

“We really shouldn’t go back on something that’s starting to move forward with success,” said Liz Moran, Northeast policy advocate at Earthjustice, of ORES. “We’re getting more renewable energy online, and many would argue not fast enough. So we shouldn’t be slow-rolling this.”

New York already has a Farmland Protection Working Group and fees in place to minimize the impact of new energy facilities on productive soils.

Solar boosters also point out that the total amount of land needed to decarbonize the grid is relatively small. Richard Perez, a solar expert at the University at Albany, estimates that New York could get year-round, 24/7 clean energy using about one percent of its farmland for solar, along with rooftops, other urban areas, and floating panels. That amounts to about 70,000 acres. By comparison, Perez estimates that New York currently devotes about 125,000 acres to growing corn for ethanol, a vastly less efficient form of energy.

And proponents note that revenue from solar leases are a lifeline for many farmers, allowing them to stay in business when they otherwise might have been forced to fold.

Melinda Vizcarra, a fifth-generation farmer, grows fruits and vegetables on about 300 acres in Niagara County. Over the years, she and her husband have expanded into wine and beer making, plus hosting seasonal events and dozens of weddings per year, to make ends meet. Still, “it’s scary every year,” she said.

So when a solar developer approached her a few years ago about leasing 50 acres of her land, she was quickly convinced. She wasn’t farming on the plot, anyway — the family had already been renting it out — and the solar lease would pay quite a bit more once the panels were built.

In contrast to the unpredictability of crops, the solar lease would provide “something that we know, from that piece of ground, we’re going to get that much money every year,” Vizcarra said. The solar revenue should be enough to cover the farm’s utility bills, she added, taking one major expense off the table.

If the project moves ahead as planned, Vizcarra’s land will be a small part of a 350-megawatt solar and storage plant developed by EDF Renewables. The company hopes the facility will be up and running by 2027, but it still has to file its permit with the state, and there is plenty of local opposition to contend with, including from other farmers in the area.

For Hinchey, the bottom line remains the same: Developers build on farmland because it’s cheap. Some of them are large multinational firms; many have backing from private equity; and they should pay their fair share.

“If we’re going to be taking away a finite resource, having a small fee to protect the finite resource seems like a fine thing to do,” she said.

Becker Farms, a fifth-generation farm in western New York, is leasing a 50-acre plot for a major solar project. | Becker Farms

On the Assembly side, legislators are pushing for labor provisions across a wide range of clean energy projects, including transmission and offshore wind.

“We all support the idea of development of renewable and sustainable energy,” said Harry Bronson, the Assembly labor chair. “We can’t say we’re going to do that at the expense of a workforce.”

The Assembly’s version of the RAPID Act would require that iron, steel, and components used in publicly funded clean energy projects be made in the United States, unless the funding agency finds that it would be unreasonably expensive. It also requires that developers pay union-level wages and enter “labor peace agreements” with unions, meaning that they remain neutral in union elections, but the union must agree not to strike or otherwise disrupt operations. (Under Biden-era laws, federally funded clean energy projects are heavily incentivized — but, by and large, not required — to meet many of the same standards.)

The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York says the labor standards are key to achieving the “just transition” that the state’s climate law promises.

“The intent of building this infrastructure is not only to achieve [renewable energy] milestones, but also create thousands of good paying union careers, bolster our middle class, and generate much needed economic stimulus for our local communities,” the Trades’ president Gary LaBarbera told New York Focus. “This will only promote efficiency on these projects and allow the state to get the most out of green infrastructure development.”

A 2011 study by Cornell University scholars found that labor agreements can help speed up construction projects by avoiding work stoppages and other costly disruptions.

Bronson and Parker, the Senate energy chair, both expressed confidence that the labor protections would make it into a final deal.

Parker said debates about the clean energy transition often fall into a “false dichotomy” between speed and other goals. But he acknowledged that New York’s massive renewable buildout will involve some tradeoffs.

“There’s three ways you can get a job done: good, fast, or cheap,” he said, relating a saying from his home contractor. “But you can only get two at a time. If it’s good and fast, it’s not going to be cheap. If it’s cheap and fast, it’s not going to be good.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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