New Yorkers for Clean Energy:  What’s the Deal with Renewable Energy & Agriculture?

I have recently posted several articles about the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) and the unintended consequence of industrial solar development impacts on agriculture.  This article describes a solar development supporter meeting that looks at solar development and agriculture.

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.

Background

On December 7, 2021 New Yorkers for Clean Power (NYCP) and Alliance for Clean Energy NY (ACENY) co-hosted their Workshop #7 “What’s the Deal with Renewable Energy & Agriculture?” to discuss the compatibility of renewable energy and agriculture in New York State.  New Yorkers for Clean Power is a ”statewide collaborative campaign to rapidly shift to a clean energy economy”. The mission of the Alliance for Clean Energy is to “promote the use of clean, renewable electricity technologies and energy efficiency in New York State, in order to increase energy diversity and security, boost economic development, improve public health, and reduce air pollution”.

The seminar had speaker presentations and then a chance for questions and answers.  The four speakers were:

  • Jen Metzger, former NYS Senator on the Agriculture Subcommittee & NYCP Senior Policy Advisor
  • Ethan Winter, Northeast Solar Specialist from American Farmland Trust
  • Cullen Howe, Senior Attorney & Renewable Energy Advocate from the Natural Resources Defense Council, and
  • Giuseppina Agovino from Friends of Flint Mine Solar.

Jen Metzger (starting at 1:45 of the video) talked about the need to site clean energy resources smartly and admitted that renewable resources take up more land.  She said that it is important to keep farmers farming and suggested that part of the solution is the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority Agricultural Technical Working Group.  She is a member and explained that they are helping to “develop a Smart Solar Siting scorecard to encourage responsible siting of renewables on agricultural land. Her  presentation slides noted that the scorecard lists five area to avoid:

  • Avoid prime agricultural soils
  • Farmland in active cultivation
  • Forested land
  • Wetlands
  • Grass lands

Ethan Winter (starting at 15:55 of the video) from American Farmland Trust said that his organization wants to protect farmland and promote compact growth because farmlands are under threat.  They believe it is necessary to expand smart solar siting and the first priority should be development on built land then on marginal lands.  The following screen capture summarizes their concerns.

Cullen Howe (starting at 31:44 of the video) from the Natural Resources Defense Council did not have any slides.  His presentation is a good summary of the overall position of renewable energy advocates.  He said that “The good news is that we know how to de-carbonize the electric sector and the better is news is that we have the technology to do that and the technology is getting cheaper every day”.  He went on to say that now the challenge is to how quickly we can scale up these technologies to meet the Climate Act targets.  He noted that the new solar siting rules require projects to get permitted in one year. 

According to him NRDC’s position is that distributed solar should be sited wherever it is cost-effective to do so including residential home roofs and available locations in urban areas.  He admitted that most of the solar will have to sited elsewhere.  According to a Department of Energy study the land needed for the latest national solar development is only one half of one percent of the total area of the country equivalent to the area taken up by golf courses.  With respect to agricultural lands NRDC advocates agri-voltaic practices that allow crops and grazing animals to share space with solar panels.  He highlighted §900-2.16 Exhibit 15: Agricultural Resources in the NY Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) regulations because it includes an Agricultural Plan.  The plan is supposed to be consistent with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Guidelines to the maximum extent practicable, to “avoid, minimize, and mitigate agricultural impacts to active agricultural lands (i.e., land in active agriculture production defined as active three (3) of the last five (5) years) within NYS Agricultural Land Classified Mineral Soil Groups 1 through 4.”

Giuseppina Agovino (starting at 41:43 of the video) from Friends of Flint Mine Solar described her experiences advocating for a solar facility near her home.  She explained that even though the project was sited entirely on marginal agricultural land there still was a lot of opposition.

Discussion

In my opinion, all the speakers were advocating responsible solar development that minimizes the use of the best agricultural farmland soils.  Whatever your position is with respect to the industrial solar development that to me is a key requirement.  If a project meets all the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (Ag and Markets) guidelines and the ORES requirements then, given the current state law mandating massive buildouts of solar energy, the application should be approved.

However, note that the ORES regulation has limitations for “active” agricultural lands, whereas, as far as I can tell, the Ag and Markets regulations don’t include that criterion.  In a recent post I described the Ag and Markets testimony on the recently approved Trelina Solar Project which noted the following:

The Department discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use. This effort is in accordance with Section 4 of Article 14 of the 2018 New York State Constitution, which provides for the conservation of agricultural lands, as well as NYS Agriculture and Markets Law (AML), Article 25-AA, §300, which more specifically states:

“It is, therefore, the declared policy of the state to conserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of its agricultural land for production of food and other agricultural products. It is also the declared policy of the state to conserve and protect agricultural lands as valued natural and ecological resources which provide needed open spaces for clean air sheds, as well as for aesthetic purposes.”.

The testimony goes on to note:

Prior to large-scale solar development, the Department has not been associated with PSL Article 10 cases which convert large acreages of agricultural lands to non-agricultural uses. Commercial wind generating facilities generally allow for farming activity to continue once the project is in-service. In comparison, the solar industry arguably eliminates the ability to perform normal viable agricultural operations within, and potentially immediately surrounding the facility. This constitutes a permanent conversion to a non-agricultural use. Due to increasing NYS energy goals encouraging renewable energy development, we see no reason facilities will not be upgraded and re-leased to maintain the growing or static renewable energy demand, in this case, 35 years from energization. The Department further asserts that as long as NYS incentives for the development of renewable energy exists, the complete decommissioning of solar electric energy generation, and full resumption to agricultural use is not likely to occur.

The most damning testimony relative to agricultural farmland disturbance for the approved project came in response to the question whether the facility layout follows the Department’s Solar Guidelines and does it align with the Department’s siting policy (My emphasis added below):

In general, access roads should follow field edges and the solar arrays should not be sited in a manner in which agricultural areas become orphaned as described in my testimony above. Additionally, the Department finds the Applications proposed siting is not consistent with the Department’s siting policy because it will occur on more that 10% of active farmland classified as Prime Farmland (Generally, Mineral Soil Groups 1-4) within the proposed limits of disturbance. The Department estimates that greater than 68% of the of the limits of disturbance includes the conversion of farmland classified as Prime Farmland Soil (Mineral Soil Groups 1-4). The Application states that solar panels will cover 325 acres, however areas located outside of fenced areas will likely become fallow or orphaned as a result of screening requirements and setbacks. This will eliminate crop production on much more than 325 acres of agriculture lands for a minimum of 30 years -worth of crop yields from some of the most productive farmland soils in the State. While the Applicant describes the impact to agricultural land and farming, in general, as temporary, a 30-year loss of the production of crops, livestock and livestock products constitutes a permanent conversion to a nonagricultural use. Although a decommissioning plan has been prepared, there is virtually no reasonable assurance that the project will be decommissioned and that the full resumption back to agricultural use will be reestablished.

Therein lies the contradiction between the admirable theory and actual practice in New York at this time.  I agree with the Ag and Markets goal that projects should limit the conversion of agricultural areas within the Project Areas, to no more than 10% of soils classified by the Department’s NYS Agricultural Land Classification mineral soil groups 1-4, generally Prime Farmland soils, which represent the State’s most productive farmland.  Furthermore, I agree with their observation that given the need for solar energy in the future that full resumption to agricultural use is not likely to occur.  Based on what I heard on the call I think that all the speakers would be in general agreement.  Although they might disagree on the allowable percentage, I doubt that they would support 68% disturbance of prime farmland for a project.  Although I tried to ask whether they agreed with those points during the seminar they ran out of time before my question could be posed.

I have previously described unintended consequences of the Climate Act solar development land rush on agriculture (here and here).  As described above, the Trelina Solar Project has violated Ag and Markets guidelines for prime farmland conversion.  In another post I argued that the Garnet Energy Center,  a proposed 200-megawatt solar project located in the town of Conquest in Cayuga County, N.Y., will not be a boon to local agriculture.  According to the July 2021 Proposed Array Layout the project area is 2,288 acres and the facility area (area within in project fence line) is 1,054 acres.  I have been unable to find a table listing the amount of prime farmland that will be disturbed but I did figure out that 57% of the project area is either prime farmland or soils of statewide importance.  I believe it is unlikely that this project will meet the Ag and Markets guidance.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the problem is that there is no master plan for the Climate Act.  There is no responsible siting guidance and the scoping plan will present policies but provide no overall strategy to balance all the requirements of the Climate Act.  Soil sequestration is one of the necessary policies but it will be much more difficult if prime farmland is being covered with solar panels.  Shouldn’t there be specific guidance on prime farmland conversion so that developers know that they cannot get an approval if they don’t meet that requirement?  Without that guidance I don’t think that this will work out in the best interests of the state, affected communities, or neighbors to the projects.

While I am encouraged that the seminar speakers all appear to support responsible industrial solar development, the problem is that is not what is happening today.  I wonder whether the speakers and the supporters on the call know that the current land rush for solar development is ignoring all their plans for responsible development.  Given that current development is not consistent with their recommendations would they support a moratorium on solar development until specific guidelines consistent with them are put in place?

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

One thought on “New Yorkers for Clean Energy:  What’s the Deal with Renewable Energy & Agriculture?”

  1. The insolation of much of NYS is so poor that industrial solar facilities could be net zero contributors to our energy needs and emissions reduction goals. There is little evidence to suggest that solar developers will follow any guidelines promoted by NYSA+M. The feeding frenzy will easily overcome any single agency’s advice. Farmland and forests are being sacrificed. ORES is not a trusted regulatory bureau. Prohibit industrial solar on any agricultural lands regardless of soil qualities.

    Liked by 1 person

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