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. On October 27,2022 the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment (Siting Board) “granted approval to Garnet Energy Center, LLC to build and operate a 200-megawatt (MW) solar farm in the Town of Conquest, Cayuga County, with 20 MWs of battery storage capacity, one of the largest approved to date”. While I am terribly disappointed with the approval from the standpoint of the local impacts to most of the residents of Conquest there are larger ramifications. I describe two problems with this approval: the impact on local agriculture across the state and the failure of the Hochul Administration to protect local agricultural communities.
New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) Act establishes a “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. I have written extensively on implementation of the Climate Act. Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that efforts will make a positive impact at an affordable level but actions like this do more harm than good. 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.
Solar Siting Issues
I have written enough articles on solar siting issues that I have setup a page that summarizes them all. I became aware of the particular issues of utility-scale solar development on agriculture after I had a couple of people contact my blog describing issues that they had and suggested that I look into the issue. The problems that they raised are real, the solutions are available, but in the rush to develop as many renewable resources as quickly as possible the State of New York has dropped the ball on responsible utility-scale solar development. Given the massive amount of projected utility-scale solar generation capacity required to meet Climate Act goals the rush to develop solar projects could easily lead to the permanent loss of significant amounts of prime farmland that will hurt farming communities and endanger Climate Act strategies to sequester carbon in soil.
Solar developers are quick to point out that a landowner gets revenue when a solar project is developed. However, when land is taken out of production it will reduce farm jobs and the economic activity may be improved during construction but once the facility is operational there are very few economic benefits to essential local businesses. Furthermore, taking the land out of production may make other farmers who have been renting that land to make their operations viable will not be able
to support investments made in facilities, livestock, or equipment.
Press Release Announcement
The press release announcing the siting decision describes the project:
The project will consist of commercial-scale solar arrays, access roads, buried electric collection lines, a collection substation, and electrical interconnection facilities. Additional facilities would include a 345-kV switchyard which will be transferred to New York Power Authority to own, maintain, and operate. The project will be located on land leased from owners of private property. The project will include a 20 MW energy storage system which will charge exclusively off the solar array.
The press release goes on to say:
The project area is about 2,289 vacant acres, and the project footprint is about 900 acres. The solar farm is expected to begin commercial operation in 2023. Through land agreements, the project developer says it supports the agricultural economy by infusing revenue into family farms and diversifying their income.
The focus of this article will be on these statements. In the first place the 2,298 “vacant” acres include a “total of approximately 1,234.2 acres of NYSORPS classified Agricultural Land (Code 100)”. Clearly agricultural land is not vacant. I hope that was a typo, but if not, it is a sad testament to the disconnect between the Hochul Administration and the agricultural community.
The bigger issue is the claim that the project supports the agricultural economy. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (AGM) testimony concluded that the project will have “significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community”. This article will explain why the best interests of the state as exemplified by the AGM testimony have been cast aside in the unplanned rush to build renewables as part of the transition of the economy to net-zero.
NextEra Response to Testimony
On March 10, 2022 Michael Saviola of the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (AGM) submitted prepared testimony on the Garnet Energy Center application. On April 12, 2022 NextEra Energy Resources responded to the comments in Garnet Rebuttal Panel Testimony. In the following I am going to discuss two issues where the Siting Board chose the developer’s rationale over the AGM.
The two issues are addressed in the Panel response to Saviola on page 124 at line 6 of their rebuttal testimony. Question: “Please address the direct testimony of AGM staff’s witness Mr. Michael Saviola.” The answer:
Mr. Saviola states that AGM “discourages the conversion of farmland to a non-agricultural use” (AGM staff Testimony, p. 6, ll. 4–5). With respect to utility-scale renewable energy projects, Mr. Saviola states that “[t]he 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” (AGM staff Testimony, p. 7, l. 21–p. 8, l. 2).
On page 125 line 3 the rebuttal testimony poses the question: “Does siting the Project on Prime Farmland soils amount to a permanent conversion of agricultural soils to a non-agricultural use, as Mr. Saviola argues (AGM staff Testimony, p. 8, ll. 18–20)? The response states:
No. Although agricultural land within the LOD will not be available for farming during the life of the Project, the soils will be suitable for agricultural use after the Project is decommissioned.
Saviola’s testimony explained the AGM concern:
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 developer’s response to this claimed it was speculation on the part of Saviola and reveals their development rationale and the shortcomings of current State policy. On Page 127 line 4 the rebuttal testimony states: “In our view, however, it is equally speculative that State incentives will remain constant, that no participating landowners will elect to resume agricultural activities within the Project Area, and that all participating landowners will agree to release their land for solar generation at that time.” Parsing out “State incentives will remain constant”, it is obvious that the developer believes that without state incentives aka subsidies they would not consider redeveloping the site. It seems to me that they admit that solar development in the future will still depend on subsidies. The decision to return to farming or leasing to farmers is primarily driven by money. While I have no personal animosity towards landowners that offer their land for solar development, the fact is that the NYS solar incentives provide more than enough money to outbid the value and risks of farming so it is an easy choice for land owners. However, if nearby farmers were renting land used for solar, there is no hope that they can compete with the state money. AGM developed guidelines so that solar development would not reward a favored few at the expense of the entire agricultural community. They are saying you have to keep most of the Prime Farmland available for farming purposes. The Siting Board and Climate Action Council have failed to support the AGM opinion that “the facility will result in or contribute to a significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community”.
NextEra arguments hinge on the definition of permanent. It points out that on page 126 line 15 that:
As the Siting Board has previously explained, although agricultural lands will be converted to non-agricultural use during the life of the Project, decommissioning and post-decommissioning restoration measures “result in minimal permanent impacts to agricultural resources.”
In my opinion the implicit concern of AGM is that even during the life of this project the loss of Prime Farmland is to be avoided. Even if the project area is restored the avoided minimal permanent impacts likely are limited to the farmland itself. It is unlikely that the failed family farms who depended on renting that property and the local businesses that went out of business when all the affected farms stopped farming will startup when the solar leases end and the land becomes available to farm again. While solar developers want to be able to install panels on land that requires less work to maximize their profits, clearly it is in the best interest of the State to encourage responsible solar development that avoids installation of solar panels on Prime Farmland and directs it towards land with less value.
On page 124 line 19 the rebuttal testimony gets to the crux of the problem:
Article 10, the State Energy Plan, the CLCPA and the recently enacted Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act (“Accelerated Renewables Act”) do not specify any agricultural standards that must be satisfied, nor do they attempt to usurp the rights of private landowners to voluntarily decide if they wish to grow food on all their land or use a portion of it to allow the generation of renewable electricity in order to support their farm operations.
This is all completely true and is the license which out-of-state developers are using to usurp the AGM’s attempts to protect to protect the state’s most productive farmland. It is evidence of the Administration and Climate Action Council’s failure to act in the best interests of the state’s agricultural community. The State has a responsible solar siting policy option roadmap for the proposed 10 GW of distributed solar development. However, there is not an equivalent set of policies for utility-scale solar development. Clearly there should have been a moratorium on utility-scale solar development permit approvals until those policies are put in place and I submitted a comment on the Draft Scoping Plan that made that suggestion. Without responsible solar siting guidelines, the solar developers can thumb their noses at the AGM and the agricultural community they are trying to protect.
On page 128 line 1 of the rebuttal testimony responds to the question “Does the Project minimize permanent conversion of Prime Farmland soils to the maximum extent practicable in accordance with AGM’s 10% goal (AGM staff Testimony at p. 12, l. 22 – p. 13, l. 3)?”. The answer:
Yes. The Project’s LOD encompasses approximately 1,054 acres. As a result of the Applicant’s Update to the Application (January 2022), approximately 185 acres of solar arrays have already been eliminated from the Project layout (see App. Ex. 4 Update at 1). This reduction of arrays resulted in an overall reduction of Prime Farmland within the LOD by approximately 37 acres and reduced permanent impacts to Prime Farmland by approximately 2 acres. Approximately 492.2 acres of land within the LOD is classified as Prime Farmland. However, only approximately 12.6 acres (approximately 2.6% of Prime Farmland within the LOD) will be permanently impacted by the installation of Project Components (id.). The rest of the land will be restored and maintained in compliance with the AGM Guidelines to the maximum extent practicable. This permanent impact is well within AGM’s 10% goal.
The Garnet application Updated Exhibit 4. Land Use describes the project area impacts to agricultural land:
The Project Area was evaluated to determine impacts to Agricultural Land, including mapped Agricultural Districts, as part of the Project. A total of approximately 1,234.2 acres of NYSORPS classified Agricultural Land (Code 100) is mapped within the Project Area. The Project will have a fenced-in area of approximately 901.6 acres. Although the Project is sited entirely within mapped Agricultural Districts, the fenced area will only occupy 0.3 percent of all lands designated as mapped Agricultural Districts within Cayuga County and 5.0 percent of all lands designated as Agricultural Districts within the Town of Conquest. Finally, of the 1,054.1 acres of LOD, only 464.7 acres will occur on land classified as Prime Farmland which is only 6.5 percent of all Prime Farmland within the Town of Conquest, and 0.25 percent of all Prime Farmland within Cayuga County.
When I look at the numbers, I get a different result. The total project area is 2288.7 acres, 464.7 acres of prime farmland will be on Prime Farmland and that works out to 20% of the project. That is double the AGM guidelines that led to the conclusion that the project will have “significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community”. The percentages of prime farmland in the town and county are only listed to give the appearance that this is not a big deal but there are not standards for those parameters.
There was another paragraph responding to this question:
In addition, no statutory or regulatory support is cited for AGM’s proposed 10% or less Prime Farmland soil conversion “goal” that “the production of food is more essential than the generation of [renewable] electricity,” or that soil classifications 1-4 should be avoided, even if it means interfering with the development of a renewable facility contracted to sell renewable energy credits to NYSERDA. The Certificate Conditions conserve and protect agricultural lands; it is the responsibility of AGM, and not private solar developers, to encourage the development of farming. That charge cannot be used to thwart the renewable energy goals of the State.
I was shocked at the tone of this rebuttal to Saviola’s testimony. In this example we have out-of-state developers lecturing state agencies on policy. Of course, their only concern is throwing up as many solar panels as possible as soon as possible before the Administration figures out that there are negative consequences to irresponsible solar development that should be considered and not ignored. Sadly, the lack of a planning by the Climate Action Council has resulted in no regulatory guidelines so developers are free to thumb their noses at the agencies.
Finally, there is no more tone-deaf response to the AGM arguments than on page 127 line 8: “New York State is combatting the devasting impacts of climate change now”. This pathetic attempt to appeal to emotions demands a response. Given that New York’s total annual GHG emissions are less than the annual increase in global emissions averaged since 1990 the likelihood that the climate change value of this solar project is greater than the “significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community” is vanishingly small.
New York State has stacked the deck against home rule and the consequence is going to be a disaster for communities dependent upon local agriculture when vast swaths of Prime Farmland are converted to solar panels over the life of the project. I am terribly disappointed with the Garnet Energy Center project approval because I believe it will have local consequences that will out-weigh any climate change benefits due to the solar development. Unfortunately, it is just a symptom of a much larger disease.
Since I started tracking solar development project approvals a total of five applications have been approved for a total of 1,120 MW. The total project areas cover 14,812 acres and the project footprints total 5,728 acres. Despite the best efforts of AGM staff to prevent the loss of Prime Farmland the area unavailable for farming in these projects totals 3,920 acres or 26% of the combined project areas. This is bad enough but all three Draft Scoping Plan mitigation scenarios call for over 40,000 MW of solar development. Unless the Climate Action Council institutes responsible solar siting guidelines similar to the policy option roadmap for the proposed 10 GW of distributed solar development there will be significant and irreplaceable loss of Prime Farmland and damage to farming communities across the state.
The Garnet Energy Center project approval is an example of the State’s net-zero transition unfolding disaster. As NextEra states “Article 10, the State Energy Plan, the CLCPA and the recently enacted Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act do not specify any agricultural standards that must be satisfied” so developers are free to use as much Prime Farmland as they want. In addition, there are no solar capability standards so developers are free to install fixed panel racking systems that cost less but do not meet the capacity expectations of the Draft Scoping Plan. The state has not updated its cumulative environmental impact assessment for the larger renewable energy capacities in the mitigation scenarios so the consequences of the necessary level of development are unknown. Finally, the State has not released actual cost estimates of their proposed control strategies. To sum up, current state policy does not protect Prime Farmland, unless guidelines are promulgated even more solar capacity will be required causing even more undefined cumulative environmental impacts, and there is no estimate how much this will all cost. What could possibly go wrong?