Major Ripley solar power project gets preliminary approval

A large scale solar project to be placed in Chautauqua County near the Pennsylvania border has received first-step approval.

On Tuesday, the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency voted 7-1 to give preliminary approval for an application for a number of tax incentives to ConnectGen for their proposed South Ripley Solar Project. The company is proposing a 270-megawatt, large scale-solar project, which will be located entirely within the Ripley town boundaries. The project will include a 20 MW of battery energy storage component and is expected to cost around $348 million to construct.

According to a presentation made during the Zoom IDA meeting Wednesday, ConnectGen has worked since late 2018 to introduce the project to the Ripley community and performing environmental analyses.

So far the project has advanced through the early stages of the New York state permitting process, and ConnectGen plans to commence construction of the project in 2022 with commercial operations starting by the end of 2023.

The project is expected to contribute over $18 million in increased revenue to local taxing jurisdictions, including the town of Ripley, Chautauqua County, the Sherman Central School District, and the Ripley Central School District through its 30-year life. In addition to payments to local taxing jurisdictions, local landowners are expected to receive up to $40 million in long-term revenue in the form of solar leases, easement agreements, and good neighbor agreements.

Linda Burns, IDA business development manager, said ConnectGen has met with several Ripley land owners and has the backing of the Ripley deputy town supervisor and County Executive PJ Wendel.

“This will provide increased tax revenue, jobs and payments to land owners amongst other direct benefits,” she said.

Issac Phillips, an analyst with ConnectGen, explained that the company is an independent renewal energy developer, which was founded in 2018. “We focus on wind, solar and battery energy storage projects,” he said. They have projects in California, Nevada and Arizona and are in the process of developing more energy projects across the United States.

Phillips likes what Ripley has to offer. “The location is optimal because we’re below the grape belt so there’s not a lot of vineyards in the area. Dairy has really left the area in the last 10 to 15 years and so there’s an abundance of fields which are not being utilized and filled with shrub or being utilized for hay,” he said. “Agriculture has really moved out of the area so there’s a good amount of property available so farmers are looking to diversify their revenue streams.”

They’re looking to lease around 2,200 acres of land with the project using about 1,200 to 1,500 acres for development. Phillips said they’re still in the design process to see exactly where they will place the solar panels.

ConnectGen estimates that construction of the project will create up to 600 construction jobs at the peak of the construction period, and 220 annualized full-time equivalent construction jobs. Once completed, they anticipate two to four full-time jobs for ongoing monitoring and maintenance. According to ConnectGen, this project will contribute a meaningful amount of renewable energy to assist the State of New York in achieving its identified clean energy supply goal of 70% of electricity generated by 2030, supplying enough electricity to power approximately 60,000 average homes in New York annually.

ConnectGen is currently undergoing the comprehensive New York state permitting process to ensure that any potential environmental impacts from the project are fully reviewed and evaluated. The requirements under the state process typically include developing measures to address visual impacts, wildlife, natural resources, land restoration, decommissioning, and a host of other environmental considerations. The project is not expected to impact local farmlands currently producing dairy or cultivating vineyards.

“This is a project that ConnectGen and the community have been working on for a couple of years,” said Mark Geise, deputy county executive for Economic Development/chief executive officer of the IDA. “I’m glad that the CCIDA can assist them in hopefully making it a reality.”

Wendel expressed his support for the project as well. “This project is a win-win for Chautauqua County and the state of New York. We are thrilled that we have the land and infrastructure to attract this clean energy project to our area,” he said.

But not everyone likes what ConnectGen is proposing. IDA board member Mark Odell, who is also a Republican county legislator from the Brocton area, voted against the project.

“I had a bunch of questions and concerns out there that weren’t addressed,” he said after the meeting. “To me, there’s a lack of transparency.”

Odell said he’s driven around the Ripley area and has seen yard signs protesting the project. He’s concerned about the process that brought turbines in Arkwright and Cassadaga and sees similar objections in Ripley.

Odell, who has a background in energy, said he supports smaller solar projects, like the one being installed in Portland. By comparison, this one in Ripley is much larger. “What’s the benefit for our local citizens?” he asked. “This is just benefitting the land owners.”

Odell is also concerned about out-of-state workers coming to Ripley to work on the project while there is a ban in place for more than 30 states due to COVID-19.

Phillips responded by saying the current environmental surveys underway don’t require a lot of on-site presence. They are trying to use a lot of New York residents for the work that needs to be done in person.

“We have a safety plan in place pursuant to the state’s requirement, which we require for all of our contractors as well. In addition, they are all taking the utmost precautions on how many people they talk to. Really a lot of work they do is outdoors, not requiring any contact with land owners, not requiring any long-term stay,” he added.

Before he voted against the resolution, Odell said he is concerned about the timing of the project, with local, state and federal funding limited because of the COVID-19 crisis. “I’d rather see money put into our basic infrastructure and improvements at this time,” he said.

ConnectGen Chief Executive Officer, Caton Fenz, said he believes the project will be for the good of the region. “We are pleased that the County of Chautauqua Industrial Development Agency recognizes the great value that the South Ripley Solar Project will bring to the community, and we are excited to work with them on the PILOT agreement which will bring significant positive benefits through long-term tax revenue to Chautauqua County, the town of Ripley, and the Sherman and Ripley school districts.”

ConnectGen is a subsidiary of 547 Energy, Quantum Energy Partners’ clean energy platform company.

The company will be required to return to the county IDA later in the process to get further approval for their Payment In Lieu Of Taxes proposals.


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