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Ripley hearing shines light on solar questions

Can the township of North East, Pa., stop the town of Ripley from polluting its water?

Could the state of Pennsylvania file an injunction to stop the state of New York from allowing a 490,000 panel solar project and two giant energy storage units on its border? These questions were asked at a recent hearing in Ripley.

The EPA has recently sounded the alarm about the dangers of PFAS/PFOS polyfluoroalkyl substances — the “forever chemical” on solar panels that bioaccumulates as a toxic, cancer causing chemical. PFOS caused the shutdown of Mayville’s drinking water In 2020. Lithium and numerous other chemicals including those that leach from concrete bases can threaten ground water. Amazon has “powered off our onsite solar installations in North America” after numerous warehouse fires.

Forbes Magazine reports 317 U.S. communities have refused renewable projects due to the environmental hazards posed. Neighboring Cattaraugus County has declared a moratorium on solar projects because they are “either taking good farmland or taking wooded land that is clear-cut.” Others say, “We’ve been misled, the return for economic development is not there. The local contractors did not get a call.” Cattaraugus officials are also auditing all renewables.

On Aug. 23, the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting held a public hearing in Ripley on the proposed South Ripley Solar Project.

South Ripley Solar consists of three thousand acres and a 20 MW lithium ion battery energy storage system (BESS) – the size of two semi tractor trailers. When decommissioned, panels are classified as hazardous waste by the EPA. That is 15,300 tons of hazardous waste. The project that stretches from the border of Pennsylvania to the town of Westfield, covers one-third of the township of Ripley.

Numerous local residents opposed to the project testified, as well as union reps, land owners contracting their land to the project and Sierra Club reps from Buffalo who advocated for the project.

Mark Smith, Ripley fire chief for 18 years began, “I have concerns about the battery energy storage system and the safety of it…[in case of fire]…the response is coming from Columbus Ohio…that is not acceptable to the residents of this town…Questions they have not answered: what is the composition of the batteries? What is going to happen if we do have a fire? The run off from the batteries? Is it going into local water systems, into neighboring Pennsylvania, into French Creek? NYS does not have any training… I don’t want to be the guinea pig.”

The township of North East is 603 feet directly below the South Ripley Project. Jon Triana, North East firefighter, expressed concern: “What happens when it starts raining and that’s burning for three days, blowing towards North East? Does the water do anything to those chemicals that we have no idea about? … I have concern for public safety. There are 4200 people in our town who have no say. I want them to be safe.”

Rob Galbraith, first responder testified: “521 acres of forested land will be cleared. Forests absorb 2.5 tons of CO2 per year per acre which equates to 1800 tons per year…The panels cannot be recycled – no technology exists to economically recycle those panels…the lithium ion storage batteries – I have great concerns about that as a first responder. We on the front lines take this very seriously. The politics are way ahead of the science.”

Shelly Spacht, 27-year energy expert and fifth generation Ripley farmer quoted from the project safety webinar, “‘Whenever possible site projects in normally unoccupied spaces…it should not be put in residential occupied spaces…” Spacht continued, ” I can tell you, the most residential areas are literally right next to it…The safety webinar recommends a seven to ten miles evacuation zone due to hydrofluoric gases from a BESS thermal runoff fire or explosion.”

A BESS fire response amounted to evacuation that includes North East, Pa.; Ripley, Mina, Findley Lake, Sherman and Westfield.” As Ripley Planning Board Chairman, Spacht spoke with a solar project representative who said, “We are not here to produce electricity. We just want the renewable energy credits (RECs).”

Jim Spacht, South Ripley fire chief, described the fire response potential in Ripley: “You are expecting to put something in our district that we cannot handle. What are we supposed to do… stand by for 4 1/2 hours? They have no plan to fight a fire. $189,000 [possible money to the fire district from the project] is not worth one life. Next to Pennsylvania? You are putting another whole town into jeopardy.”

Kathryn Galbraith: “Texas energy costs have increased 70% in one year…In Texas, they have to go to natural gas to power the grid because renewable intermittent energy cannot come close to meeting the demands.”

William Gutz, Fire Commissioner asked, “What will the environmental impact be when those panels catch on fire? When the lithium Ion batteries burn?…At my business, one of these batteries the size of my pinky destroyed a tractor trailer, and they want to put a huge facility of these up on the hill?”

Donald Rice, Boeing mechanical engineer, Ripley home owner: “The Boeing engineers found zero ways to put out a lithium ion battery… not a matter of if, but when, they catch on fire, you have reservoirs, runoffs…that fire cannot be put out.”

The ORES hearing was the first state hearing on what may be hundreds of utility scale solar projects targeting rural, Western New York.

Local communities can protect themselves from these projects by including one or more of these environmentally needed options in local solar laws:

¯ County or town law that requires recycling solar panel components as Niagara County passed last year.

¯ Require that solar components be made in the United States.

¯ No Payment in Lieu of Taxes as was done for Industrial Wind. Home Rule should allow the county and towns to exercise their rights under state law. A no PILOT resolution cannot be prevented by the state because the Real Property Assessors Association has sued the State over the issue saying PILOT agreements deprive communities of real property assessment related to property tax, sales tax and mortgage tax on several levels — this court case is holding the governor’s PILOT override threat hostage in a long court battle.

¯ Require town solar law include a property value guarantee to all neighbors of solar projects.

¯ Require an accounting of electricity produced. The Energy Returned over Energy Invested (ERoEI) should be assessed. Solar in Western New York creates 18% of the electricity claimed in rated capacity according to US Energy Information Agency.

“The politics are way ahead of the science.”

Karen Engstrom is a Mayville resident.

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