Status of Garnet Energy Center Application

Last year I was contacted by one of the organizers of Conquest Against Industrial Solar and since then I have been following the Article 10 application of the Garnet Energy Center.  This post describes the latest filed documents in the case that I used as the basis for a comment on the project.

My primary concern with this project is how it relates to the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. In particular, I believe that the massive resouces that have to be devoted to diffuse and intermittent renewable energy development will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York. 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.

Trelina Energy Center

There is another utility-scale solar project being developed near the Garnet project.  Late last year the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment (Siting Board) granted approval to build and operate the Trelina Solar Project, an 80 megawatt (MW) solar farm in the Town of Waterloo, Seneca County that is being developed by NextEra Energy Resources, the same company that is developing the Garnet Energy Center.  I published an article about the approval process and noted that despite the fact that the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets (Ag & Markets) testimony clearly demonstrated that the project did not meet the Department’s siting policies the project was approved.

As part of the regulatory analysis of the project Michael Saviola, an Associate Environmental Analyst with Ag & Markets submitted prepared testimony on the Trelina Solar Project application.  His testimony made a compelling case against the project.  In response to the question “What Department policies are subject to the proceeding”, he responded (Line 20, page 6):

As previously mentioned, The Department discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use. However, to support the New York State’s CLCPA initiatives, the Department has developed a siting policy supportive of solar development efforts on agricultural lands if (his emphasis added) the proposed projects are properly sited on lands other than the State’s most productive farmland. The Department’s goal is for projects to 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. Soils classified with the soil groups 5-10 are identified as having soil limitations. The only responsible position the Department can take to stay true to the 7 AML Article 25-AA §300 and to support the NYS CLCPA renewable energy initiative is to ensure the preservation of agricultural areas involving soils classified as soil groups 1-9 for the production for food and fiber, as well as not object to proposed development on lesser productive soils, i.e. agriculture lands comprised on classified mineral soil groups 5-10.

The overall Project Area is 1,067 acres and “only approximately 44.4 percent will be used for Project Components within a fenced area of approximately 418 acres to generate 79.5 to 80 MW of renewable energy”.  Note, however, that the testimony notes that “The Department’s goal is for projects to 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.”  The testimony also notes that “The Department estimates that greater than 68% of the of the limits of disturbance includes the conversion of farmland classified as Prime Farmland Soil”. 

The application argues that the project only disturbs 4.9% of all the prime farmland in the Town of Waterloo and presumably would argue that means they meet the intent of the Department policy.  The problem with that is there is no master plan for development and no assurances that other more responsibly sited facilities could not be constructed in the Town of Waterloo that would raise the town total over the 10% goal of the Department.  The Ag and Markets testimony also argues against the claims that only 10.05 acres will be permanently disturbed.  The testimony explains that 474.1 acres will be permanently disturbed because “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”.

I concluded that the press release describing the Siting Board’s decision statement that the process “follows a detailed review and robust public participation process to ensure that the solar farm meets or exceeds all siting requirements” is demonstrably false. 

Ag & Market Solar Energy Project Policies

On March 10, 2022 Michael Saviola submitted prepared testimony on the Garnet Energy Center application.  As before his responsibility was “to determine if the Project as proposed follows the Department’s Guidelines for Agricultural Mitigation for Solar Energy Projects.”  This section provides some background on Ag & Market/Department policies.  He notes that the Department of Ag and Markets does not have an opinion on the need for utility-scale solar generation but (Page 6, line 3):

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.”.

After acknowledging that the Department is aware of the Climate Act and supports the general initiative, the testimony goes on to state that these projects are permanent installations (Page 6, line 20):

The Department will continue to discourage the conversion of agriculture land to a non-agricultural use.  Prior to large-scale solar development, the Department has not been associated with PSL 22 Article 10 cases that constitute large, long-term conversion 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 long-term 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. 

In response to the question “What Department policies are subject to the proceeding”, he responded (Line 17, page 7):

As previously mentioned, The Department discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use. However, to support the New York State’s CLCPA initiatives, the Department has developed a siting policy supportive of solar development efforts on agricultural lands if (his emphasis added) the proposed projects are properly sited on lands other than the State’s most productive farmland. The Department’s goal is for projects to 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. Soils classified with the soil groups 5-10 are identified as having soil limitations. The only responsible position the Department can take to stay true to the 7 AML Article 25-AA §300 and to support the NYS CLCPA renewable energy initiative is to ensure the preservation of agricultural areas involving soils classified as soil groups 1-9 for the production for food and fiber, as well as not object to proposed development on lesser productive soils, i.e. agriculture lands comprised on classified mineral soil groups 5-10.  Additionally, the Department requires the Applicant to follow Department Guidelines for constructing solar facilities in agricultural lands. Draft Certificate Condition 47 and 95 identifies the Applicant’s agreement to comply with Department’s Guidelines entitled Solar Energy Projects – Construction Mitigation for Agricultural Lands (Revision 10/18/2019), specifying construction mitigation techniques intended to protect and restore agricultural soil resources. Furthermore, the Applicant has agreed to consult with the Department for any potential deviation from the Guidelines to develop applicable construction and restoration alternatives.

In response to the question: What are the primary agricultural impacts associated with the construction of a commercial solar energy generation facility on agricultural lands the testimony states: (Line 16, page 8)

The construction of a commercial solar energy generation facility within agricultural land constitutes a long-term impact and permanent conversion of farmland to an industrial (non-agricultural) use. The development of solar arrays and ancillary facilities (including panels, panel racking, transformer/inverter equipment pads, access roads, security fencing, substations, energy storage options, operation and maintenance facilities, planted visual screening areas, etc.) makes it infeasible to continue farming on viable agricultural land within the Project area. Furthermore, the location of project-related infrastructure- panel spacing and alignment in agricultural fields create obstacles that the farm operator will have to avoid during numerous types of agricultural equipment operations; including, but not limited to, cultivation, seeding, nutrient recycling, weed management, harvest, etc. The difficultly created by the obstacles forces the farm operator to abandon use of the field.

Impacts to agricultural lands remaining outside of the security fencing also has a high likelihood to become abandoned and/or orphaned. More specifically, these generally narrow areas outside the fenced facility are created by development limitations (municipal setbacks, buffers, etc.) and limit the conduct of mechanized farming. The scenarios cited above create narrow strips of land that although may be available to some agricultural producers are unattractive for most commercial farm operators, as they are inefficient to harvest crops due to the limitations of acreage and maneuverability for modern mechanized farming equipment. These “indirect” impacts often result in the loss of additional farmland which, in turn, result in a decrease in mechanized farming efficiency leading to a reduction in the production of crops, livestock and livestock products necessary for food production and security.

On page 10 line 8, the testimony asks the question How does the siting of commercial solar project-related infrastructure impact agricultural operations?

There are several potential impacts. Farms demand a certain acreage to meet their business, long-term staffing, and environmental objectives and to remain viable. If leased land is abruptly lost to another use, such as a solar installation, the farm will grow and market less produce, grains, forages, and livestock products; may have to downsize and lay-off employees; and could be challenged to have adequate acreage for proper manure nutrient recycling. Such changes may force the farm to close. As in other sectors, farmers seek improvements to management and efficiency to remain competitive and viable. Larger, more efficient tillage, planting, crop management, and harvesting equipment is one example of how farmers have adapted to remain viable and more productive. Often, this equipment can include two pieces of harvesting or tillage equipment pulled by a single tractor. As the size of the farming equipment has increased over the years, the turning radius for the equipment has also increased. The location of access roads and other project-related infrastructure in an agricultural field creates an obstacle which the farm operator has to avoid during field planting and harvesting operations. Placement of project-related infrastructure in agricultural fields can result in a loss of productive acreage as well as a decrease in field operation efficiency or viability with the larger planting and harvesting equipment because of the increased turning radii required. Depending on the location of project-related infrastructure, primarily solar arrays and access roads, the loss of acreage available to farming, and the loss of farming efficiency or farm viability can be significant and, in some cases, devastating to farms and for food production.

Garnet Energy Center

The Garnet Energy Center is a proposed 200-megawatt solar project with 20 megawatts of energy storage located in the town of Conquest in Cayuga County, N.Y.  NextEra Energy Resources is also developing this project.  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.  The fenced area encloses the solar arrays, inverters, energy storage modules and the project substation. 

On Page 12, line 18 of Saviola’s testimony he addresses the question “Does the facility layout follow the Department’s Solar Guidelines and does it align with the Department’s siting policy?”

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 almost 30% of active farmland classified as Prime Farmland (Generally, Mineral Soil Groups 1-4) within the proposed project. The Application update states that the project will occupy nearly 1,000 acres of land to generate up to 200 MW of electricity, 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 nearly 1,000 acres of agricultural 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 long-term conversion to a nonagricultural use and a long-term loss of food production. 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.

As if this is not enough the testimony goes on to respond negatively to NextEra’s response to questions.  For example, “True long-term impacts include the approximate 30 plus year loss in the production of crops, livestock and livestock products as a result of project-related components being constructed inside the fence. Nearly 1,000 acres of farmland will be taken out of production.” (Page 14 line 5).  On Page 15, line 18 agricultural co-utilization is discussed: “The Applicant indicates that they have not considered incorporating agricultural co-utilization as part of the Project. They indicate that there is not sufficient space for co-utilization.” And goes on to say he does not agree with this response: “There is ample space inside the fence for agricultural activities such as sheep grazing, apiary incorporation and pollinator species, and small-scale grass hay production, nor have they demonstrated any reduced impacts to agriculture from the increased density of the panels. The Applicant should work with hosting farmers to explore dual-use, or agrivotalic projects.  Similarly, the response to questions about subsurface drainage systems was eviscerated. 

On page 19, line 18 comes this: “It is the Department’s opinion that the facility will result in or contribute to a significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community. They have not avoided, offset or minimized agricultural impacts to the maximum extent practicable using verifiable measures”.

Responsible Solar Energy Siting

There are other efforts that define what is needed to site utility-scale solar projects to minimize impacts.  In December 2021 New Yorkers for Clean Power (NYCP) and Alliance for Clean Energy NY (ACENY) co-hosted a workshop “What’s the Deal with Renewable Energy & Agriculture?” that discussed the compatibility of renewable energy and agriculture in New York State and  all the speakers advocated responsible solar development that minimizes the loss of prime farmland.  Three other examples follow.

The Saviola testimony describes a document on responsible siting of utility-scale solar development:

The American Farmland Trust published a study in February 2022 on smart solar siting on farmland in New York State. This study was completed with input from, and collaboration with, advisory members from government and non-governmental organizations, solar industry advocates, not-for profit land trusts, solar developers, and academia. The study was conducted to develop smart solar strategies to meet climate goals while supporting its agricultural economy and future food security. The report reveals trends that show that good quality farmland has been a first-choice site for solar development. As in with this proceeding here. The lowest hanging fruit. The study strongly recommends against siting solar infrastructure on prime farmland or farmlands comprised of Mineral Soil Groups 1-4 and to site infrastructure on marginal lands. The Study also indicates that farmers are interested in agrivotalics. The Study concludes by stating that the choices we make today about where and how solar projects, particularly large-scale facilities, are sited on active farmland will make a difference to rural economies and influence our ability to farm and grow food in New York to feed ourselves and reap environmental benefits now and into the future.

In addition to this testimony there has been progress on other initiatives for responsible solar siting that should be considered in the Garnet permit proceeding.  The New York’s 10 GW Distributed Solar Roadmap: Policy Options for Continued Growth in Distributed Solar document includes a section on  Agricultural Protection and Land Use (Section III.a.4):

Farmland protection and the maintenance of a vibrant agricultural economy are important State policy goals. New York State recognizes the importance of collaboration between the agriculture and clean energy sectors as a critical part of the State’s overall decarbonization strategy. NYSERDA works in close coordination with the Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSAGM) and other stakeholders to responsibly support the development of renewable energy projects. In the 2019 NY-Sun Expansion Petition, NYSERDA described the interaction of distributed solar with agriculture in New York:

“The majority of projects in [the Upstate C/I] market sector are expected to be ground-mounted arrays ranging between 5 MW and 7.5 MW in size, which occupy approximately 20 – 25 acres of land, typically on rural properties that are leased or sold to the solar developer by the landowner. Notably, this includes properties that are currently used, or could potentially be used for, agricultural production. While NYSERDA expects that the total agricultural acreage utilized for distributed solar projects will remain modest as compared to total farmland in New York State, through its implementation efforts, NYSERDA will act to ensure that negative impacts to farmland and the State’s agricultural economy are avoided and minimized, and where they are unavoidable, mitigated. NYSERDA, working with partner agencies and stakeholders, has already taken multiple actions along these lines and will pursue additional actions under an expanded NY-Sun program.” (This section is from the NY-Sun Petition, p. 21.)” 

In the subsequent two years, NYSERDA and NYSAGM have continued to work in partnership to put in place requirements for solar projects to minimize impact to farming and agricultural soils.  (These requirements include, inter alia: complying with New York State Agriculture and Markets Law; submitting appropriate notices to NYSAGM and local Agricultural and Farmland Protection boards; executing a copy of the Guidelines for Solar Energy Projects – Construction Mitigation for Agricultural Lands document published by NYSAGM; and making a Mitigation Fund payment or committing to other mitigation measures where impacted agricultural soils exceed 30 acres.) These requirements have already demonstrated their effectiveness: In 2021 to date, all 50 distributed solar projects subject to these requirements, totaling 1,037 acres of affected area, have committed to avoiding and minimizing impacts to prime soils in consideration of the solar layout. For 48 of these projects, all unaffected portions of the farms hosting the solar projects, a total of 3,385 acres, will remain in agricultural production. Many of the farmers hosting projects on a portion of their land report that the steady lease revenue from the solar projects has enabled them to continue farming on most of their property despite challenging agricultural economic pressures.

Finally, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority Agricultural Technical Working Group is working on a “Smart Solar Siting“ scorecard to encourage responsible siting of renewables on agricultural land. The scorecard lists five area to avoid:

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

Conclusion

In my opinion, the American Farmland Trust report, the state’s policies for distributed solar and the Agricultural Technical Working Group analyses will eventually be used to form the basis of a state-wide policy for responsible siting of utility-scale solar development.  In the meantime, it is inappropriate to allow projects like the Garnet project to proceed. 

The Garnet Energy Center permit decision will be a litmus test to see if the State is going to protect farming communities.  I believe that the testimony clearly demonstrates that the proposed project is inappropriate because “the facility will result in or contribute to a significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community”.  Ag and Markets testimony for the Trelina project was similarly negative but that got approved.  At a minimum the project approval should be delayed until guidelines for responsible utility-scale solar development are available and I submitted comments to the docket to that effect.  If the Siting Board ignores the Ag and Markets testimony and the clear need to wait for guidelines, then it will be clear that the State is not going to protect farming communities.

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.

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