One of Westchesterâ€™s largest cemeteries could soon be getting a different type of occupant: a solar farm.
With the blessing of Gate of Heaven Cemetery, CES Hawthorne Solar is seeking permission from the Mount Pleasant Planning Board to use 32 acres of the cemetery that are not being used for burial to place solar panels.
The land for the project would be leased from St. Patrickâ€™s Cathedral, which owns the cemetery. A 5.6-megawatt ground-mounted structure would produce 7.2 million kilowatt hours of green energy per year over the course of the 25-year lease.
At a meeting in March, John Kirkpatrick, attorney for the project, confirmed that all reviews mandated by the planning board at a previous meeting in September had been successfully completed.
â€œWe understood that (in September) there still needed to be a review by the building inspector and the town engineer to confirm that all the elements of our application were complete, and that we were actually ready for a hearing,â€ Kirkpatrick said. â€œSo those reviews are now done, as we understand. Weâ€™re back to ask you to schedule this application for a public hearing.â€
According to Steve Ondishin, project manager and manager for renewable project development for Con Edison Clean Energy Businesses, the solar farm would reduce carbon emissions and help the area meet its growing need for energy without having to build fossil-fueled power plants.
Though the project would require trees to be cleared, the project still complies with the townâ€™s site density factor, and the planting of 150 evergreen trees for perimeter screening has been proposed.
An artistâ€™s rendering showed that the solar farm would be well-screened from both nearby roads and the rest of the cemetery.
â€œIn terms of the trees that are going to be removed from the site, they are going to be removed either for the solar project or for general cemetery purposes,â€ Ondishin said. â€œThey wonâ€™t remain, but itâ€™s nonetheless interesting to note that the trees that are on site would have and could have only sequestered 1.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide over that same 25-year period, and we can contrast that to the 280 million pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent to the green energy produced by the project, so there is a pretty sizable offset.â€
That figure was calculated from the 7.2 million kilowatt hour estimation for the site.
Ondishin also asserted that the site would be well-maintained throughout the 25-year period, and that after it is decommissioned, the landowner would resume control of the land where it is expected to be used for cemetery operations.
Because the cemetery is owned by a nonprofit organization, the parcel of land slated for the solar farm produces no taxes. A payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement for the project is under discussion with the town.
â€œIt would total about $47,800 per year coming into the town of Mount Pleasant,â€ Ondishin said. â€œAnd this is a 25-year lease for the property, so that would be $47,800 every year.â€
Ondishin explained that energy produced by the farm would go into community solar energy, which allows residents who are unable to install solar panels on their property to subscribe to a community solar project such as this one.
Roughly 200 town residents or small businesses would be able to subscribe to the Gate of Heaven project, allowing them to save on utility bills. Other than having a current account with Con Edison, there are few requirements for a resident or business to be able to subscribe to the solar program.
â€œSavings vary among participants due to many factors but could, on average, amount to $360 per subscriber, per year,â€ Ondishin said.
Other than the town residents, churches and Catholic schools would be beneficiaries of the project as well. Michael McLaughlin, chairman of the planning board, questioned why they would be allowed to be beneficiaries if the project is to receive a PILOT agreement with the town, but advised Ondishin to present the answer to any questions at the projectâ€™s public hearing rather than address them at the board meeting.
Other concerns raised by the board and some members of the public included the number of trees that would have to be cut down for the project; the management of â€œpollinator friendlyâ€ flora that would be planted among the panels; wildlife displacement; wetland management if the parcel is confirmed to be located at least partly on a wetland; whether rooftop solar projects are more suitable to the town; and how to properly notify the public before the public hearing.
Scott Hanley, managing director for the board of trustees of St. Patrickâ€™s Cathedral, expressed his support for the project on behalf of the trustees and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
Hanley also addressed concerns about clearing the trees.
â€œOver the last three years weâ€™ve planted over 300 trees at Gate of Heaven and weâ€™re looking to plant another 50 this year,â€ Hanley said. â€œThe land identified will be cleared either for the solar field or for future use at the cemetery, and thatâ€™s why weâ€™ve been planting so many trees right now.â€
The proposal of a solar farm within a cemetery is not unheard of. In Mount Kisco, Oakwood Cemetery contains a solar farm that contributes to community solar; it has been estimated to produce 1.7 gigawatt hours of power per year.
In West Babylon, Long Island, Solar Liberty rents St. Johnâ€™s Annex, a portion of St. Johnâ€™s Roman Catholic Cemetery, to house its 9-megawatt solar farm.
Vale Cemetery in Schenectady also leased an unused area of its property for a solar farm to Monolith Solar. The project was approved in 2017 and energy created from the panels is used to offset electricity usage from municipal buildings in Albany.
Outside of the U.S., a municipal cemetery in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Spain added 462 solar panels atop its grave walls over a decade ago.
Con Edison Clean Energy Businesses is one of the largest solar energy facility owners and operators in North America. Its solar energy facilities are in eight states across the U.S., including New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
A public hearing for the Gate of Heaven solar project will be held virtually on May 17.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.