I am starting to see more New Yorkers becoming aware of the impacts of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). In order to meet the target of a 100% carbon-free electricity system by 2040, an enormous amount of solar power will have to be built. I recently heard from Dan Steward, an agronomist and environmental planner in western New York who raised the issue of another unintended consequence after finding this blog.
I have written extensively on implementation of the CLCPA because I believe the solutions proposed will adversely affect reliability and affordability, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change, and cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
In brief, Dan notes that most farmers rent a significant portion of land for their operations, especially dairy farmers who use it to grow forage for their herds. Farmers have always competed for the use of land: there is a saying that the farmer who can farm the land most profitably is the one who will end up with it. This is economics 101. Farmers are now competing with solar developers with vast direct and indirect subsidies, offering land owners up to ten times the current agricultural annual lease rates. This raises the concern that farmers will not have enough available farmland to support the investment they have made in facilities, livestock, or equipment. At a minimum, it will raise the cost of land for New York farmers, making it harder to compete on the increasingly global food markets.
Dan explained that in the last year they have reviewed and commented on Notices of Intent for at least a half dozen industrial solar developments that convert farmland in agricultural districts in New York’s Chautauqua County. He notes that although there are “guidelines” for developers to site solar on poorer, under-utilized soils, many of the project plans they have reviewed are planned for prime soils.
He doesn’t think most farmers understand what is heading their way. He said: “New York State Ag and Markets, who does know, is doing very little to speak out against this travesty. This is just another unintended consequence of this ill-advised policy put forward by our “leaders.”
In the past large utility-scale solar projects would have gone through an extensive permitting process that includes a requirement to inform everyone who could be impacted by the project about the plan. However in order to “ensure that renewable generation is sited in a timely and cost-effective manner” the state passed the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act (AREGCBA). The AREGCBA has guidelines to site solar away from prime farmlands but, given the volume of applications, I doubt that permitting staff at the agencies has time to review applications to ensure that this guideline is applied. Moreover, because the permitting requirements for notifications are so much less stringent so it is very possible that a developer could get an application approved before impacted farmers could object to the loss of the prime farmland they need to operate.
It gets worse. Another guideline concerns decommissioning. Developers are supposed to set-aside enough money so that when the solar development is decommissioned the land can be returned to its previous condition. That challenge is markedly easier if the land is poorer quality or under-utilized but if the land used was prime farmland, it is much more difficult.
There are a couple of concerns. Given the state’s aggressive implementation policy and lack of stakeholder input in the permitting process, there is a good chance that insufficient funds will be set-aside for reclamation. Dan is concerned about a situation where the developer declares bankruptcy without having a legitimate bond and then the landowner will let the property go back on taxes to the county without ever having decommissioned or restored the land. He explained that:
When the question about who is responsible for decommissioning is posed at meetings or addressed in informational literature, it is stated that a land-owner should consult an attorney to protect themselves. However, in the situation I just described, it is the local taxpayers, neighbors and the county that will ultimately be left in possession of what is now basically a brownfield.
We the public have the risk, not the landowner. The landowner will have collected, according to reports, around $1,000 per acre annually. He has more than recouped the value of the land and has no incentive to engage in a costly clean up. I understand that bonding is supposed to play a role in these projects. I admit that I am not familiar with different forms of bonding and how they work. However…
This must be a common concern with these projects, but I have never heard it addressed definitively. Why does everyone need to get a lawyer to get an answer?
If you are interested in more information, Dan also passed on a video of the September 15, 2021 meeting of the Planning and Economic Development Committee of the Chautauqua County Legislature where these topics were discussed.
In a similar vein, Max Zhang, professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell recently published “Strategic Land Use Analysis for Solar Energy Development in New York State“. Unfortunately it is paywalled, but there is a summary of the article in Science Daily, Roadmap to expand NY solar energy, meet green goals. The study notes that:
So far, 40% of current solar energy capacity has been developed on agricultural land, the researchers found, while 84% of land identified as suitable for future solar development — about 140 gigawatts — is agricultural.
“Solar farms are already taking up agricultural land and it will likely take even more to achieve New York’s energy goals,” Zhang said. “For the solar-energy community, this is not a surprise. But for the agricultural community, this is a surprise.”
All this is consistent with Steward’s concerns. Zhang’s analysis estimated the amount of solar needed for the CLCPA targets.
Under New York state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the state must reach 70% renewable energy generation by 2030 — and 100% by 2040. Assuming no further offshore wind energy development beyond the current 9-gigawatt goal, the state will need 21.6 gigawatts of utility-scale solar energy capacity to reach that target.
However, Zhang did not have the results of the latest estimates of solar deployment. On October 14, 2021 integration analyses were presented to the Climate Action Council that include the resources necessary to meet the CLCPA targets. Scenario 2, “strategic use of fossil fuels”, projects that 64.6 GW of solar will need to be deployed. That total includes both utility-scale facility and roof-top solar. Assuming half is utility-scale solar that means we can expect 32.3 GW of industrial solar installations. I have reviewed Article Ten solar facility applications and 11 included both the proposed capacity (MW) and area expected to be covered with equipment. The average was 9.3 acres per MW so that means in order to meet the CLCPA targets 300,300 acres or 469 square miles of land will need to be covered with 32.3 GW of solar panels by 2050.
Zhang has a couple of suggestions to reduce negative impacts. He suggests that “Keeping solar farms from becoming too concentrated in regions will likely help mitigate negative economic activity”. Overly concentrated development leads to agricultural land conversion which initiates “a negative, economic chain reaction for businesses that depend on farming”. In an interview on his paper Zhang notes that one strategy would be to use low quality land or consider dual-use (agrivoltaics) options. He does note that there is an economic reason to use the higher quality land because it is flat and has already been cleared.
For the most part I agree with his analysis and statements. However, I have to disagree with his interview statement that “solar PV is generally a benign technology. In order to get the solar power to your home energy storage is required. Processing to obtain the rare earth metals needed for solar and energy storage is anything but a benign impact. In addition, the installation of the massive number of panels creates massive areas of impermeable surface which will increase stormwater runoff. If not handled correctly serious problems will occur.
In no small part the reason for Dan’s cynicism is his past experience with other state renewable energy programs. He cites the problematic wind turbines installed on the Thruway. Several years after installation they weren’t working and the State ended up suing the developer. I could not find any reference to a resolution of the problem.
Another example is the NYSERDA Solar Thermal Incentive Program. Dan explains that:
Contractors were paid to install solar thermal panels on barn roofs. Most farmers paid nothing for them. However, there was no incentive to make them work. All of the farms I have talked to, including my brothers, that had them installed through this program have told me they never worked! The contractors took their money and got out of Dodge. Eventually they will need to be taken down at the farmer’s expense. Some may now have some equipment that has some value for other uses, but in most cases, little to no renewable energy hot water was produced. Stop in and ask a farm or two.
Dan also mentions another renewable energy project that I remember from my days at Niagara Mohawk. The idea was to plant stands of willows as a pilot project for renewable energy on agricultural land. The plan was to burn the willow at the Dunkirk coal-fired power plant but when somebody did the math it turns out that the plant could have burned all the willow planted in such a short time that they could not justify getting the system setup to use the wood. As a result, it was never harvested and it is not hard to find hundreds of acres of willow in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County if you know where to look. Of course, even if it had worked the plant is closed now so failure to use the resource was only a matter of time.
Conclusion When the people affected by the massive amounts of renewable energy development get a chance to make their concerns known, it turns out that there are legitimate concerns that should be addressed. Unfortunately, the New York renewable energy siting process no longer mandates that their concerns should be heard even from peer-reviewed work such as Zhang’s. As a result, I expect many unintended consequences to arise unless changes are made. Given that the history of previous renewable energy projects in New York does not have a particularly good record of success it is easy to presume that this will be the case this time too.