A community solar farm simply needs the right plot of land to thrive. From agricultural plots to former landfills, arrays have been constructed on a host of different surfaces across the United States. The latest planned for Westchester, NY, however, may be one of the most unique. CES Hawthorne Solar, a solar development company, recently revealed plans to build a solar farm at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in the town of Hawthorne. CES submitted a request for use of 32 acres of the cemetery’s property to the Mount Pleasant Planning Board to develop the solar facility, which would become the town’s newest community solar farm.
Owned by St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the land would be leased to CES for the duration of the facility’s life. According to the submitted request, the solar developer is looking to install a 5.6-megawatt ground-mounted community solar farm. A facility of this size would be capable of producing upwards of 7.2-million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy over the 25-year lease. The significance is that the equivalent of fossil fuel would be not be used, which would reduce the release of carbon emissions by a considerable amount.
Con Edison Clean Energy Businesses’ project manager Steve Ondishin noted this in a statement. He also stated that the project would increase the production of energy in the region while bypassing the need for fossil fuel power plants. The protection of the environment is one significant perk of developing the community solar farm, but there’s another aspect to these helpful facilities.
When a community solar farm comes online, it is capable of generating clean energy to subscribers of the project. Those that participate in a community solar program become eligible to receive a credit on their power bill that’s equal to the amount of solar energy they’re using. Taking part in a community solar farm comes with no commitment and subscribers can cancel their contract at any time without penalty. The discount they receive averages between 10 and 15%, depending on the project they’re subscribed to.
Based on the size of the proposed facility, it’s expected to serve around 200 homeowners, tenants, and small businesses in the nearby town. To be eligible, participants must be serviced by Con Edison. There will be other requirements, but CES has yet to release those specifics. Catholic schools and churches would also be eligible to participate in the program
To ensure the community solar farm proposal has a greater chance of receiving approval from the Mount Pleasant Planning Board, CES was sure to complete any reviews mandated by the submission process. John Kirkpatrick, the attorney overseeing the legalities of the facility, confirmed that the solar developer worked to complete all action items assigned to them by the planning board during a September 2020 meeting. Some of these tasks included a building inspector review and report from a town engineer to determine the viability of the community solar farm.
Development of the new farm would require CES to remove trees to be displaced from the cemetery. However, to counter this, the proposal includes planning more than 100 evergreen trees around the perimeter to block the view of the facility. The goal isn’t to hinder the visuals of the cemetery and still give the public a quiet, peaceful location to visit their loved ones. An early rendition of the facility reassured that neither the cemetery nor nearby roads would have a view of the community solar farm.
According to Ondishin, the removal of the trees was inevitable. It was either going to happen at the hands of CES or to expand the cemetery for general purposes. To counter any concerns about the trees, Ondishin states that those being removed would only counter the production of carbon dioxide by 1.2 million pounds over 25 years. The community solar farm, however, will reduce emissions by 280 million pounds in the same timeframe.
Throughout the 25 years the community solar farm would be operational, the grounds would be maintained by the managing company. Once the project has run its course, the grounds will return to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The cathedral expects to retain the land after the 25-year span for operations and space for the cemetery to grow.
As with any new project, board members were vocal about their concerns with the project. Some of those concerns included the number of trees that would be removed to make way for the facility, if pollinator flora would be maintained properly, if the local wildlife would be displaced, and if the parcel ill be located near the wetlands. There were inquiries as to whether rooftop solar paneling would better suit the town, though that will make it difficult for low-income homeowners and tenants to participate in any solar energy program.
Though there may be opposition for the project, St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s managing director for the board of trustees, Scott Hanley, showed support for CES and its proposal. Hanley spoke on behalf of trustees and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
While the concept of a community solar farm in a cemetery may seem unusual, the Gate of Heaven solar facility isn’t the first of its kind. A 9-megawatt far was built at the St. John’s Annex in West Babylon, Long Island. Additionally, Mount Kisco’s Oakwood Cemetery is home to a 1.7-gigawatt facility.
Homeowners and residents will have a chance to speak on the community solar farm on May 17 during a virtual public hearing.