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Ripley solar project questions answered during webinar

RIPLEY — Residents of the town of Ripley had the opportunity to have many of their questions regarding the proposed South Ripley Solar and Storage Project answered at a virtual informational meeting held last week.

According to representatives from ConnectGen, the public meeting was held to “provide information to stakeholders, understand stakeholder interests, identify any additional stakeholders potentially affected by the South Ripley Solar & Storage Project, and solicit information from stakeholders during public outreach events.”

The webinar featured a host of experts who are involved with the project. The first part of the presentation covered several areas that will be part of the 94C application. 94C overhauls the state’s large-scale renewable siting process, replacing Article 10, which required solar projects to undergo a rigorous state permitting process.

Ben Brazell, environmental services specialist from Environmental Design & Research noted that “94c allows for a more focused application than Article 10.”

Brazell also covered avian resources data obtained from the state Fish and Wildlife and the state DEC, as well as a lengthy study. Out of 62 raptors identified in the area, only the Bald Eagle and Northern Harrier are on the endangered list, he said. However, he continued, there was no evidence that either species is roosting or mating in the area.

Panelists reviewed areas that are required for the 94C application, such as the preliminary solar layout, a stormwater pollution presentation plan, wetland and stream resources data, avian resources data, visual impacts and public health, safety and security.

Matthew Robinson, visualization project manager from EDR showed attendees a photo of the existing conditions view from Route 76. He then defined a visual study area and described landscape similarity zone mapping.

Ken Kaliski, senior director from Resource Systems Group reviewed the sound and noise impact, including a study of the current decibel level in Ripley and a projected level.

Isaac Phillips, project manager at ConnectGen, LLC, presented the public health and safety section and described the decommissioning process. He noted that the solar panels must meet strict electrical standards and the battery storage system must also meet local, state and federal electrical and fire safety standards.

Phillips also said that the site will be remotely monitored on a 24/7 basis. It is ConnectGen’s responsibility to ensure that local first responders have the necessary equipment and training to respond to any situation.

Article 94C also requires a clear decommissioning plan for removal of equipment and restoration of the natural area at the conclusion of the solar project, Phillips said.

Following the informational section of the meeting, participants had the opportunity to pose questions to the individual experts, including Phillips, Brazell, Robinson, and Kaliski, as well as Catan Fenz, John Kuba, Jon Muscato, and Nick Warner. Sarah Krisch referred each question to the most appropriate respondent.

Many of the questions concerned the safety of the project. Phillips noted that a security fence will be constructed around the solar array, both for the protection of the equipment and the community. When asked how many acres will be enclosed, Phillips answered that the exact acreage is not yet known, but all major panel areas will be fenced in.

One participant asked if a safety plan had been created and, if so, why hasn’t it been shared with the local fire departments. Phillips responded that access roads and turn-around locations are still being worked out. The safety plan is dependent on facility design recommendations, he added.

Another participant asked what would happen to the cooling system and the security if the internet goes out. Robinson responded that ConnectGen is required to have a back-up.

Other questions centered around the environmental impact that the project could have on the area. One person asked how ConnectGen can rationalize the cutting down of thousands of trees. Cuba responded that the impact would be mitigated by vegetation management on the site, which will include replanting of grass and trees.

In response to a question regarding required EPA testing, Muscato answered that there is no particular requirement for scheduled EPA testing. However, ConnectGen performs an environmental site assessment, which includes water quality testing and vibration effects to water wells, both before and after construction.

Additional questions focused on economic benefits to the community. When asked if the company is willing to contractually sign only local people, Phillips responded that those overseeing the operation will be from ConnectGen, but the majority of the laborers will be from Chautauqua County.

One participant asked Phillips how many permanent jobs will be offered by ConnectGen, to which he answered “two to four full time, long term jobs.”

When asked if the estimated 60,000 homes that will be supplied will be only in Ripley and Chautauqua County, the response was that ConnectGen transfers the electricity to the local grid and it goes where it is needed.

One participant asked “How much money do you expect to make, and then leave the situation?” Fenz answered that ConnectGen “expects to be in the community for a very, very long time.”

When the issue of opposition to the project was raised, it was noted that a consultation meeting will be scheduled soon with the Town of Ripley.

“Also, we have involved the community since 2018,” Phillips said. “Continued engagement with the town should get everyone comfortable with the work we are doing.”

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