Saturday, March 19, 2022

Debating solar and cell tower aesthetics

cell tower

Barbara Rice attended her first Adirondack Park Agency meeting last week as its new executive director just a few days after starting the job. It was a packed five-hour meeting.

“The one thing that stands out to me is how dedicated and hard working the staff here is,” Rice said, at the start of the meeting.

We published a couple of stories out of that Thursday marathon, including how the Olympic Regional Development Authority plans to widen some ski trails at Whiteface Mountain.

The Olympic Regional Development Authority showcased to the Adirondack Park Agency board the positive comments submitted thus far for its plans to widen ski trails and create new paths at Whiteface Mountain. ORDA officials, including President and CEO Mike Pratt, attended the APA’s virtual Thursday meeting to send their amendment proposal to a second public comment.

You can read that story here.

The APA board also approved a cell tower in Edinburgh and a solar project in Ticonderoga. Both projects generated discussion about the aesthetics of these utilities.

The Adirondack Park Agency wrestled with balancing residents’ need for utilities with protecting iconic views, ultimately approving a cell tower disguised as a pine tree on a hillside of deciduous trees and a large-scale solar facility in a field backdropped by mountains.

You can read more about that here.

For those interested in the Town of Warrensburg’s map amendment request, the APA did not approve it. The town had wanted to change two parcels to hamlet, a land classification that involves less oversight from the APA and more development possibilities. The town had cited the parcels’ proximity to water and sewer utilities as reasons for the change. APA staff recommended that the smaller portion along the Schroon River be changed to moderate intensity use instead of hamlet, but the APA board did not have a super majority to pass it so the land classification remains the same. APA staff did not recommend any change in land classification for the larger parcel outside of the hamlet boundaries, and the board agreed and voted with staff’s recommendation. Warrensburg officials could still come back and ask for the change should they gather more information for a new application.

I’ll also note, the APA has several projects out for public comment including the use of an herbicide to treat invasive Eurasian watermilfoil on Lake George. The Lake George Park Commission is proposing to use the same herbicide the Town of Minerva used on Minerva Lake in 2020. Check out those public comment opportunities and their deadlines here: https://apa.ny.gov/Hearings/index.cfm.

Above: A simulation of the cell tower, taken from the APA’s presentation.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Gwen’s weekly “Adirondack Report” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Gwen is the environmental policy reporter for Adirondack Explorer.




25 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    Personally, I think those cell towers supposedly “disguised” as an evergreen tree just stick out like a sore thumb. I’d vote for slim towers that are very hard to spot from miles away. Solar fields are beautiful to me–the more the better!

  2. Todd says:

    More solar energy will be needed to reduce fossil-fuel emissions that are causing climate change. Solar panels will help provide energy to power the increasing use of electrical vehicles and heat-pumps to warm and cool our homes and businesses. Cell towers that rise high above mountaintops and are in plain sight from large vantage points can obviously detract from the natural beauty of the Adirondacks. Cell towers are needed, but siting them should be carefully studied using Geographical Information System (GIS) viewscape analyses so that they are located at sites where there are as least visibly intrusive as possible, but stiil provide adequate service.

  3. Boreas says:

    Put simply, cell towers in the Park are necessary – large, commercial solar farms are not. Small, private panels do not likely pose much harm to the environment or scenic vistas, but we frankly do not know the long-term effects of these farms on any local ecology. Until we know ALL of the long-term repercussions to the ecology, they should be banned from the Park.

    Last century, the Park did its part by producing significant hydro power – but again, at what cost to the environment?? Dams and facilities have been decommissioned over time and some have been reverted back to free-flowing rivers. Why? Because the Park in its NATURAL state has been found to be more valuable than its ability to provide power. Old trees, clean watersheds, healthy wildlife communities, and wild, natural landscapes are all endangered around the world. The Park is a unique, tiny postage stamp of protected wildness on a planet damaged by human civilization. It needs to be preserved and protected for that reason alone. There are many other places in the world where solar farms would be more appropriate.

    • Todd says:

      This sounds like NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) to me. The number one environmental threat to life on earth right now is climate change and we have to take action fast before we go beyond the tipping point of no return. We ALL have take responsibility for correcting this disastrous course SOON! Delaying action before we as you say “we know ALL the long-term repercussions to the ecology” would delay taking critical action now. We can’t delay. If we don’t act now because we don’t have everything we need to know now, that is just a delay that we can’t afford. There have been plenty of studies already. The question really is do know enough to make a decision to proceed even though there may be some detrimental risks, and I believe the answer is yes. Everyday when you stop or delay switching to non-fossil fuels, you’re causing tremendous damage to the environment. So I ask you, what are the actionable solutions NOW that you propose to ween off fossil fuels?

      • Boreas says:

        Todd,

        It isn’t NIMBY, rather it is Not In Our PARK. If you want to cover the rest of the state/country/world with solar panels, do your research to determine their ecological repercussions, and place them where you wish. Just don’t do it in a Park set aside by NY citizens – regulated to preserve its natural state.

        • Zephyr says:

          There are tons of places solar fields can be sited that are already open fields or ugly swaths of nothing. For starters, how about the median of the Northway? Or at Dysfunction Junction. How about the prisons that are getting abandoned? Etc. If we don’t switch to renewables quickly there will be no Adirondacks as we know them.

          • Boreas says:

            Should we cover our National Parks with solar panels as well? Perhaps we could also dam our rivers and jump back into hydro power in the Adirondack Park.

            All of the power we generated for the rest of the state and the timber we gave up for the country over the last 150 years should make a Park with only a few residents immune from having to solve the world’s energy problems – at least until ecologically safe alternatives exist. As I mentioned, small groups of panels on private property should be allowed to permit landowners to lower their footprint. But large wind and solar farms offering power to downstate interests should not be sited in the Park.

            Until the ecological consequences of solar farms (and wind farms) have been fully fleshed out, they should be kept out of the Blue Line. There are plenty of other sites in the state to generate power that do not infringe on the Park’s natural assets.

          • Todd says:

            You can’t willy-nilly throw out as options any open-space sites as candidates for solar or wind. Just because there are open spaces doesn’t mean they’re economically suitable for solar or wind development. Sites have to be near the appropriate sized electrical grid infrastucture (powerlines and transformer stations). Because powerlines already cross the Ads in places, affordable hookup is possible in certain areas of the Adirondacks.

            • Zephyr says:

              Sure, everyone knows that, but you can’t Nix solar by saying not in the Adirondacks because of reasons. Nobody is suggesting building solar fields in the High Peaks or even anywhere near the region, but there are many suitable places in the Adirondacks that are potential solar fields. Our town has built a successful one over the old landfill that supplies all the municipal power and then some.

        • Todd says:

          I’d like point out that, unlike National Parks which are 100% federal public land, the Adirondack Park is roughly 50% private lands in which substantial numbers of people have full-time and part-time residences here. Also, there is a substantial tourist infrastructure here, including ski areas, resorts, hotels, motels, etc. These use energy resources. The people who live, recreate, and do business here should take responsibility in sharing the need to convert to fossil-free energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. If sustainable infrastructure is built smartly, it would minimize negative affects. At the very least, sustainable non-fossil-fuel infrastructure should be built to provide the amount of energy used in the Adirondacks. I’d like to point out also, climate change is a global phenomenon, therefore weening off fossil fuels here also helps the earth. If we’re not willing to take responsibility for our own energy use in the Adirondacks and become NIMBYs, wouldn’t we be hypocrites?

          • Boreas says:

            I certainly understand your point. But it is still a Park – giving it certain Constitutional protections – primarily environmental. There have been virtually no long-term studies on the effects of large-scale commercial wind and solar projects proving them to be benign for the ecology. Continuing to bring up my apparent hypocrisy does not address the issue of protecting the immediate environment of the Park and its long-term goals. Another hypocrisy lies in ignoring the intended nature of the Park and its constitutional protections and goals.

            Indeed, should we eliminate the Park’s protections in order to provide power? There are entire states and nations that create less power than they use. And they do not have the constitutional protections of the Adirondack Park. As I mentioned above, how long has the Park generated hydro power yet sold it downstate? How much is STILL being sent to the “grid” and not staying in the Park?? Perhaps we should begin by demanding all power currently generated in the Park stays in the Park.

            Again, the Park has done our share over the last century or so in providing clean water, clean air, electricity, timber, and minerals to NYS – as well as recreation opportunities the world desires. In order to continue providing these in the future, while continuing to protect the Forever Wild nature of the Park, we need to be very careful about what infrastructure we employ. I am not talking about aesthetics alone – but ecological integrity.

            I am not a hypocrite. I support both wind and solar where they can be safely employed. If this turns out to be nowhere, then we need to look at other options – like energy REDUCTION. I just don’t feel our Park should be used for generating power to the “grid” with potentially harmful, stop-gap technologies. We are still living with the ramifications of deforestation, mining, and hydro damming and their subsequent environmental repercussions – little of the products ever stayed in the Park. The area has historically been used for multiple extraction industries – it doesn’t need another.

            Frankly, at this point, I would prefer to see a small, modern, efficient nuke plant on Lake Champlain at the Park’s border providing ALL of our power, as I feel it would have less over-all ecological impact to the Park – especially after we have restored our rivers to natural flow. But this isn’t likely. Why is that? Fear of the radiation boogieman? What about the boogiemen that ACTUALLY still threaten ecology of the Park every day?

    • Bill Ott says:

      Perhaps we should cover Mount Mercy with solar panels, and then just one cell tower on the peak. It really would not stand out that much. Then I could walk up the hill just to get photos of solar panels to post on my future “Greatest Wildernesses” blog. Walking down New York’s highest peak I could recharge my phone at a handy plug-in in order to post my blog and request the latest menu from the nearest restaurant.

      How about mounting solar panels on all the fire towers. That would be a money saving option.

      My earliest Adk memories come from about 1955. My dad paid $3.00 a week to camp at the Sacandaga campground. He sent me to pay the ranger. We camped with surplus WW2 equipment. We lived just fine without cell phones (or any phone).

      To cut my 5,157 essay short, if one wants a wilderness experience, do it without a cell phone.

      Bill Ott
      Lakewood, OH

      • JohnL says:

        1st of all. Thanks for cutting it short Bill. It isn’t the hiker wanting a ‘wilderness experience’ that needs the cell tower. He may think he needs it, but it’s the people who live in ‘The ‘Park’ that NEED the cell towers. It IS the 21st century you know. Don’t deny one because of the other.

  4. JohnL says:

    Regarding solar panels. As apparently the only Climate Crisis skeptic monitioring this website, I think the rush to solar (and wind power) to be premature at best and damaging to the economy at worst. Below are a couple of articles with a number of the ‘settled science’ predictions of the past 60 years, and how they really played out. It’s not a crisis!

    Regarding cell towers. Just like the love/hate relationship ‘natives’ have with visitation from us dirty unwashed from the southern part of the state, if you want cell service, you need cell towers. Since I don’t live there, that’s YOUR choice. Get ’em or don’t. I’ll still have my internet.
    https://www.westernjournal.com/10-failed-global-warming-predictions/
    https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/50-years-of-failed-doomsday-eco-pocalyptic-predictions-the-so-called-experts-are-0-50/

  5. JB says:

    I agree with Boreas, who has some excellent points. As for arguing that wariness towards utility-scale solar installations in the Adirondack Park is NIMBYism, some more rebuttals. Why is opposition to large-scale solar in the Park suddenly NIMBYism, whereas the policies that have hitherto protected undeveloped, open space–the very same open spaces now needed for solar–were not? …Is it that residential development and heavy industry are actually worse for the environment than solar farms? …Or do the purported benefits of solar energy “cancel” the negative environmental effects? Whatever the justifications may be, they lack the empirical and ethical rigor that we should be requiring in the Park. Common sense, though, would suggest that turning large chunks of undeveloped land into expanses of glass and plastic is going to have significant ecological and environmental effects. Communities elsewhere have even spotlighted the very real concern that when certain types of photovoltaics are being used, we are introducing the risk of environmental heavy metal contamination (this debate is far from settled). What about cable insulation, plasticizers, halogenated flame retardants, pesticides? How many of these prospective areas for future solar are actually located near the necessary transmission infrastructure (most of the interior Park has no high-voltage transmission lines)? Is solar really a panacea, or even a net benefit, in the fight against climate change? …There are compelling arguments to the contrary. Aren’t we just reapeating the mistakes of the past, turning to the Park once again as an extractive frontier to feed the insatiable needs of an overconsumptive larger society? When science mixes with politics, it rarely bodes well.

    In terms of cell towers, many people who have chosen to live or have lived without them give it little thought. Individual communities should be rightfully respected as the biggest stakeholders here. But I’ll suggest that aesthetics should not be the primary focus of an environmental analysis. Instead, APA should be thinking about the ecological and environmental impacts of the roads and infrastructure that may need to be built around a tower. And who knows, maybe in another couple of decades, cell networks will be an antiquated technology, replaced by something better (like packet-switched, ultra-secure satellite internet and ad-hoc wireless networks).

    The idea that NIMBYism is a moral corruption, or even that there is a sustainable alternative to NIMBYism, is folly and nonsense. Who among us is omnipotent enough to actually solve problems on a global scale? Arguably, the shift away from NIMBYism and towards an abstract, global view has created this whole sustainability crisis in the first place. The derogatory term “Not in My Backyard” should instead be reserved for people who oppose place-based policies–ie., who do not respect their own backyards, or anyone else’s. Policies and ethics built around specific places are positive and constructive, not negative and destructive. In fact, renewable energy projects are being vehemently opposed by indigenous people–who have stewarded lands sustainably for longer than any of us–around the globe. If we all cared a little more about our own backyards, we’d have a world full of many well-stewarded places (and happy people), rather than one full of overexploited extraction zones and overused parks on the fringes of an overdeveloped society.

    • Todd says:

      JB, Boreas, Zephyr, me, and all Adirondackers emit per capita large rates of climate-changing gases such as CO2. We are heavy users of fossil fuels because Adirondackers are mostly individual vehicle users (little or no pubic transportation) and burn copious amounts carbon emitting heating fuels (oil, gas, wood, etc) to heat our homes during the very cold Adirondack winters. Why am I’m mentioning this?– well, we (Americans) are one of the largest culprits that are heating the earth, the United States is responsible for twenty-five per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. The CO2 that JB, Boreas, Zephyr, me, and all Adirondackers emit is not a local issue, because the CO2 we emit rises into the atmosphere
      and gets circulated around the world. Our CO2 is contributing to the increasing rate of CO2 concentrations at the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii (our long-term atmospheric baseline station) as well as to contributing to global-wide environmental damage such as the increasingly powerful hurricanes, increasing rate and extent of wildfires such as those along the west coast, sea-level rising affecting coastlines, invasive species, etc. Also, the irony is that, the damaging effects of climate change are disproportionately affecting most who emit the least amount of green-house gases; the poor nations, Island nations, indigenous people, etc. It seems unfair to me that we should not bear some of the responsibility for the harm we caused, especially to the innocent people around the world.

      Other responses: Boreas wrote “Until we know ALL of the long-term repercussions to the ecology, they should be banned from the Park.” This is an unrealistic approach to real world problem solving. First, in most cases, the real-world goal to conducting studies and finding solutions is find out ENOUGH in order to get the job done. Second, we don’t have the time to do “long-term” studies (eg. 50-100 years) because time is a variable in this process–we are already well into into climate change, but more importantly, we are under the gun to do something rather quickly to mitigate much worse effects. Also, we are in a race with time to get significantly lower CO2 and transition to clean energy sources before reaching the “tipping point” when irreversible changes occur to our climate system. Also, there have been many studies done on effects of clean energy sources such as solar and wind, (just google it), but maybe just not as long as Boreas would like to see. We certainly know enough to move foward.

      Yes, the Adirondack Park was Constitionallly created to correct the wrongs of the past (massive clear cutting of the forests, forest fires, and to protect the watersheds), but the I believe the founders would not have included installing clean-energy sources such as solar during a global climate crisis as one the reasons to create the Park. That was the past, now are different times. The Constitution does not ban solar installations, as evidenced by a number of community solar systems being erected now in the Ads.

      Although Boreas opposes all large solar installations because they may be “potentially unsafe”, my response to that is there is little disagreement that continuing to burn fossil fuels is by far more damaging. And let’s be honest here, by far, most people who object to solar installation projects is not that they are unsafe– they oppose them for AESTHETIC REASONS. Times have changed, so we have to change also–as we similarly accepted the need to install cell and microwave towers on hilltops, we have to get used to viewing some solar farms that will supply the energy needed by Adirondackers. If we don’t act nationally as well as locally here in the Adirondacks, then our descendants will look back on this time in human history with a mixture of confusion and disgust.

      • JB says:

        Todd, I’d be genuinely appreciative if you could point me to some large-scale analyses of life cycle surface land area requirements and environmental impacts of utility-scale solar. The position that I’m coming from is of one who is just beginning the process of installing home solar in the Park. The technology has come a long way, but it is not the panacea that many who have never seriously studied the matter seem to think.

        A pure self-responsibility-based solution to human carbon emissions is not feasible. But few forms of energy require as much land area to scale as solar does. And the problem is, there are no large land areas on the planet (outside of Antarctica) that that have not been continuously inhabited for millennia, be it by man or animal or etc.–minus industrial sacrifice zones (e.g., for energy production) . In reality, there are other ways to reduce carbon that have a longer track record (empirical research) and are orders of magnitude better in terms of life cycle surface land requirements (e.g., nuclear). Solar is going to be a powerful tool to have in the arsenal, even in the Adirondacks. But one of many. And it absolutely cannot be seen as a drop-in replacement for fossil fuels. We should not throw caution to the wind (no pun intended) with the mere reasoning that “we need to act fast”, even if it seems particularly convienent to do so in the Adirondack Park. It seems that haphazardly rushing to implement solutions is the easiest way to ensure that our “solutions” will fail to be enough. If we really want to help our grandchildren, let’s be smart. Let’s think long term, and then even beyond that. Let’s not resign to the old apocalypse mindset and play zero-sum games.

        (And for what it’s worth, there’s a an electric car in the factory with my name on it.)

        • Zephyr says:

          Right, nuclear and leave the problem of the incredibly toxic waste to some other future generation to solve. Solar isn’t a panacea, but it is part of the equation that is doable right now. Coming from the position of having lived off the grid for 12 years straight at one point with nothing but my own solar and wind power before anyone even knew what it was. “What’s that fan for?”

          • JB says:

            Zephyr, we’re becoming less capable as a society of the kind of nuanced thinking that we need. We will need to live with some of these types of lesser evils if that doesn’t change. If we’re really serious, we need to be explicit in our rhetoric. A big reason that solar is so controversial in the Park is precisely due to the vague and lofty rhetoric surrounding it. Are we aiming for tens of thousands of acres of utility-scale solar in the Park, as some have suggested? Or is solar merely a bridge source that will ultimately be a drop in the bucket, with the Park playing its small role? …And a bridge to what? …Etc… Leaving those types of questions unanswered is very anti-Adirondack Park, and a justifiable reason for concern.

            • Zephyr says:

              The thing with solar is that it is a very simple technology that is totally adaptable to the available needs and space. It is infinitely scalable. You don’t need to build a huge installation to supply the entire Adirondacks. Put solar on every old landfill, rooftops, over parking lots, etc. Small installations are just as efficient as large ones. In my own installation I just added a panel or two when I needed more power, and the technology was completely understandable to a normal mortal like me. Unlike nuclear where you need huge and intricate infrastructure that takes massive workforces to build and maintain, and it is all beyond the ability of normal people who live and work in the Adirondacks. Solar is a fantastic job opportunity for many people in the Adirondacks.

              • JB says:

                Zephyr, I competely agree. Solar is the best energy technology available for everyday people like you and me, or even small communities. Unilke nuclear it does not cost billions of dollars to get our foot in the door. Commercial and industrial users, however, consume the lions share of electricity in this country (doing essential things like–steel manufacture, chemical production, and even solar manufacturing). Also, the United States is one of the most urbanized nations in the world. There is a lot of electricity going to a disproportionately small portion of the country, for which massive, centralized energy infrastructure makes sense, both economically and environmentally.

              • Todd says:

                Meeting electrical needs via solar panels takes lots and lots of solar panels. In my previous home, I had 26 panels that produced about 6,800 kilowatthours (kWh) per year, which met our electrical needs (running appliances, TV, computers, occasional use of electrical baseboard heaters, etc, but not our water heater or most of our space heating). We were told we would need an additional 32 panels to also supply all the electrical baseboard heating and an electrical water heater. So about 58-60 panels would do an entire job for our home. Add another 8-12 panels if you throw in an EV vehicle (for a total of 66-72 panels).
                Stepping up in scale from an individual home to a medium size community such as the Village of Saranac Lake (pop ~5,700 people) which, according to RER Energy group, has deployed on about 10 acres 5,424 solar modules, which are to produce about 2MW year, which will power over 200 homes (about 500 people or about 9% of the population of Saranac Lake) and to some businesses.
                You can do the calculation of the solar power installations that would be needed to supply the entire Adirondack population of 132,000 people). It would take a lot of panels. The good news is that there are some hydraulic power sources available in the Ads.
                The point is, at most individual home, small business, and institution sites, solar installations would be a drop in the bucket becausewouldn’t be work or be feasible because (1) not all can afford the up-front costs, (2) people don’t want it, (3) roof space or roof condition is unfeasible, and (4) most commonly, the home site it not suitable for lack of adequate solar radiation (ex. to much shade from trees which is very common in the Ads). Hence, there is need for solar farm installations in open spaces, in which the installers put up the up-front installation costs and subscribers pay a monthly use fee like they currently do for electricity, cable, TV, WIFI, etc.
                From Bill McKibbens latest article in the New Yorker–“Those of us who live in and love rural areas have to accept that some of that landscape will be needed to produce energy. But we do need to see our landscape differently—as Ezra Klein wrote this week in the Times, “to conserve anything close to the climate we’ve had, we need to build as we’ve never built before.”

  6. Zephyr says:

    It is NIMBYism at its worst if you throw out a blanket statement that it doesn’t belong here and then throw up a bunch of strawman arguments as to why. Nobody wants solar fields on the sides of Mt. Marcy. Nobody is proposing cell towers on the High Peaks. Thoughtfully sited and constructed cell towers and solar fields are one aspect of battling climate change and communication problems, which are very real threats that must be addressed if those living in the region want to preserve the environment that attracted them in the first place. I would much rather see an occasional cell tower than all the wire lines hanging from poles all over the place.

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