SOLAR KNOW-HOW: There are ways to protect farmland while adapting to solar development | News

As explained in our first article, meeting New York State’s renewable energy goals will not be possible without massive, large-scale solar projects. Large-scale, statewide solar projects could take over 250,000 acres by 2040, according to American Farmland Trust. the same organization“If all of this development happens on farmland, New York could convert as many acres of farmland to solar development over the next 15 years as was lost for all residential, commercial and other uses between 2001 and 2016.”

Agriculture is an important factor in New York’s economy. In 2017, New York had direct farm revenues of $5.7 billion per year. But these direct revenues are only the beginning. Adding all other economic activities supported by agriculture, agriculture in New York State impacts at least $44 billion annually and supports 160,000 jobs. In Niagara County alone, farm revenues exceed $118 million per year on approximately 140,000 acres, supporting approximately 1,000 jobs. The economic impact that large-scale solar development will have on agriculture here could be significant.

WHY AGRICULTURAL LAND IS TARGETED

There are several important reasons to consider implementing solar development on agricultural land. Good agricultural land is generally flat and the agricultural fields are often quite large, allowing relatively quick and easy installation of large-scale solar projects. Solar development can also supplement farm income and thus help keep some farms in business. In their pitch for solar power on their land in the town of Lockport, the Kowalski family explained that maintaining the viability of their family dairy farm was essential to passing it on to another generation. Solar projects can contribute to the preservation of agricultural land in the long term, if planned, managed and decommissioned correctly.

On the other hand, using agricultural land for solar development will take it out of agricultural production for 25 years or more, with a range of impacts. For landowners who rent their land, the revenue from solar energy is usually much higher than the rents paid for use as farmland or the profits from typical agricultural activities. Renting land for growing hay, for example, can generate $80 per acre, while a solar lease can bring in $1,000 or more per acre for that same plot. However, land lost to solar development will likely reduce the amount of agricultural land available for farmers to rent, which will significantly increase costs.

In addition to the potential impacts on agriculture, the changing appearance of the local landscape worries many who want the land around them to remain farmland. So what are the options for local communities and New York State to meet renewable energy goals without too much disruption to the agricultural economy and landscape? What can be done with location and design to minimize negative impacts?

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES ?

The most obvious solution is to locate solar projects elsewhere and not on agricultural land. Brownfields are industrial sites that are no longer actively used for industrial purposes. Approval of these sites is usually much more complicated and time-consuming than on farmland, making them less attractive to solar developers. New York State is trying to address this problem with its “Ready to Build Program” that targets brownfields for solar development, along with special state grants. According to NYSERDA website, “NYSERDA is working with state partners and local communities to rapidly advance new Build-Ready projects, which prioritize brownfields, landfills, former industrial sites and other abandoned or underutilized sites” for solar development. However, this program is understaffed and needs to be promoted and expanded to ensure maximum use of suitable non-agricultural sites.

There is a tremendous opportunity for solar power on rooftops everywhere. Rooftop solar installation would typically cost more per kilowatt than large-scale open-field projects, but the opportunity to preserve farmland should not be overlooked. Other government incentives could make a difference in the use of rooftop space, especially on large agricultural and industrial structures. Building codes could implement regulations to ensure compatibility with solar panels in new construction. Solar panels could eventually be integrated into parking lots, providing shade for vehicles as well as solar power. There are many ideas and projects for this type of roof extension.

Still, there’s no way to meet the state’s solar energy goals without considering farmland. The development cycle for large solar projects can take years and developers tend to prefer leasing land to buying land to minimize risk. Large-scale solar development can only take place with willing landowners and near suitable electricity transmission infrastructure, which is readily available in parts of Niagara County.

HOW TO PROTECT A PRIME AREA

Landowners interested in hosting a solar project should look for developers who are used to working openly and cooperatively with the community and who are not strictly focused on development at all costs. Landowners often have multiple developers making proposals, so it’s worth taking the time to find the right partner.

Not all farmland is equal. Good agricultural land is considered “prime” due to the type of soil and drainage. Some agricultural land is marginal and much less profitable. Since some agricultural land will need to be devoted to solar development, it would make sense to direct development to lower quality soils to minimize the economic impact on the agricultural economy.

An interesting way to discourage solar development on prime agricultural land is to mitigation payments. Mitigation payments are essentially state-assessed fees to discourage the use of prime agricultural land. There is already a program in place for solar projects receiving New York State incentives that submitted an application for interconnection (the first step in the approval process) after November 1, 2020. With this program, a developer would pay a mitigation fee if 30 acres or more would occupy one of the four main soil groups, generally considered “quality soils”.

The American Farmland Trust has proposed extending the mitigation model to New York State. AFT presented a proposal to the State Farmland Protection Task Force, a state-level advisory group working on recommendations for solar development that preserves valuable farmland. With their proposal, mitigation fees would increase, but there would be no mitigation fees if less than 10% of the best soils are included in a solar project. The highest mitigation costs would be for projects that used more than 25% of the best soils in the project area.

There is widespread concern about the potential loss of farmland in our county and state due to solar development. This will help to seriously consider all alternatives to farmland siting and further develop a meaningful mitigation program to help preserve the best farmland.

Randy Atwater is a member of the all-volunteer Niagara County Citizens Solar Energy Study Group, which has explored the ins and outs of solar power generation and shared its findings with the community via the series “Solar Know-How”. Atwater was joined in the study group by Jim Bittner from Appleton, Richard Brown from Lockport, Margaret Darroch from Middleport, Zuzanna Drozdz from Lockport, Jessica Glaser from Pendleton and Jim Shultz from Lockport. The next step in their series is an overview of low-impact design options for solar systems.

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