Agricultural and Farmland Viability and the Climate Act

The last several years I have spent an inordinate amount of time evaluating the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) and its legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050.  I recently published an article describing some of the overarching issues that have not been adequately addressed in the transition plan to meet the net-zero goal.  I used the Climate Action Council’s failure to protect prime farmland from utility-scale solar development as one example.  This post highlights recently signed legislation and an announcement by Governor Hochul that provides further proof that when the government says we are here to help it is likely a day late and a dollar short.

Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies.  I submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan and have written over 250 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will 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.

Climate Act Background

The Climate Act establishes a “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that will outline how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.”  The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the strategies.  That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment at the end of 2021. The Climate Action Council is required to finalize the Scoping Plan by the end of the 2022. 

In order to meet the net-zero target the general strategy is to electrify everything primarily using newly developed wind and solar resources.  According to the NYISO 2021-2040 System & Resource Outlook there were 1,985 MW of land-based wind and 2,148 MW of solar in 2019.  The Draft Scoping Plan spreadsheet Appendix G: Annex 2: Key Drivers and Outputs projects that in 2040 when all the electricity in New York must be zero emissions that there will be 12,242 MW of land-based wind and 43,342 MW of solar.  I documented that the solar projects in the Article Ten queue in 2020 averaged 9.3 acres of equipment area per MW.  Using that estimate of land required, the Draft Scoping Plan mitigation scenarios would require over 900 square miles of solar equipment. 

This post explains why the state’s response to the impact of the land needed for these developments is too little and too late to prevent serious issues. I have written enough articles on solar siting issues that I have setup a page that summarizes them all.  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 argue 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.  

State Actions to Protect Farmlands

First, let me describe New York’s inaction.  In a recent post describing the Climate Action Council’s transition plan approach I explained that there are already serious land use issues because there is no implementation plan in place.  Because there is no policy regarding utility-scale solar siting requirements relative to prime farmland the developers are thumbing their noses at the Department of Agriculture and Markets.  The Department has a policy in place to protect prime farmland but developers claim that there is “no statutory or regulatory support” for the policy so it can be ignored. The Hochul Administration permitting authorities have apparently placed renewable development as the highest priority without any assessment of the impacts identified by its regulatory agencies. 

On December 12, 2022 Governor Hochul announced that “a special working group of state agencies and agricultural community stakeholders will collaborate to support New York farmers and help boost the agricultural industry”. The press release stated that “This working group will be critical to tackling several challenges within New York’s agricultural industry, and my administration will continue to work with farmers to address their needs and reimagine farming in our state.”  The press release explains that:

The Task Force will initially focus on, but not be limited to, the following topics:

  • Transportation – address challenges involving the movement of agricultural commodities and products while understanding the needs for investment in roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure to bring products to market.
  • Labor – identify and build the next generation of farmers and farmworkers to support a diverse industry with the skills and workers required to operate modern farms.
  • The environment – address and remove obstacles to capital investments in manure management, on-farm energy production, and the transition to alternative fuel sources that limit the ability of some farms to meet the State’s climate goals and become carbon neutral.
  • Housing for workers – increase worker housing to provide workers with a safe living environment that is close to farms and assures for sustained and daily production.
  • Taxation – provide clearer guidance on property tax administration and improve access to existing tax relief programs.
  • Farmland protection – review existing programs and identify ways that the State can ensure that productive farmland remains accessible, in production, and continues to feed New Yorkers.
  • Expand procurement – of local food products by various state agencies to build local food supply chains and better connect with New York farms.

On December 6, 2022 Senate bill (S8889A) to create the Agricultural and Farmland Viability Protection Fund was signed.  It will bolster efforts to protect agricultural land from being permanently removed from farming to make way for solar development.  The press release for this states:

Currently, all solar projects receiving funding through NYSERDA’s NY-Sun incentive program that site projects on active farmland must pay a penalty, which currently goes into the State’s General Fund. S8889A-Hinchey requires that all penalty money collected be deposited instead into the new Agricultural and Farmland Viability Protection Fund and allocated to state and local farmland protection programs.

I apologize but I am not going to get into the details of this legislation.  I applaud the intent to get the money where it should logically go to try to redress the problem.  However, it does not seem likely that it will be much help to a farmer who lost the land he needed and was renting to a solar developer that can afford to pay more.  Furthermore, NY-Sun is the state’s initiative to expand distributed solar so this law does not cover the utility-scale solar projects that are my primary concern.

The most frustrating thing is that a solution is readily available.  Last December I described a webinar hosted by New Yorkers for Clean Power (NYCP) and Alliance for Clean Energy NY (ACENY) entitled “What’s the Deal with Renewable Energy & Agriculture?” that discussed the compatibility of renewable energy and agriculture in New York State.  One part of the solution discussed during the presentation could be the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority Agricultural Technical Working Group.  This group released an interim final report last May that described “strategies to integrate renewable energy sources into working landscapes with minimal impact on agriculture, including the need for more research; the potential for financial incentives; and proposed tools for State and local governments”.  Protection of prime farmland is a prime component of this report.

Incredibly it gets even more tone deaf in New York.  The NY-Sun program is New York State’s initiative to encourage distributed generation solar. The projects participating in the NY-Sun program are “typically five MW alternating current or smaller, and do not fit the definition of a Major Renewable Energy Facility”.  The interim final report notes that:

On April 19, 2022, the Public Service Commission approved the Roadmap, charting a path towards achieving an expanded goal of at least 10 gigawatts of distributed solar by 2030 and continues the NY-Sun program. NY-Sun Commercial/Industrial (C/I) projects located in an agricultural district must comply with AGM’s Solar Construction Guidelines. If the project utilizes over 30 acres of MSG 1-4, it is required to make Agricultural Mitigation Payment to the fund administered by NYSERDA. Since being implemented, these requirements have already demonstrated their effectiveness. In 2021, all 50 distributed solar projects subject to these requirements, totaling 1,037 acres of affected area, have committed to avoiding and minimizing impacts to important agricultural lands in consideration of the solar layout and complying with the Solar Construction Guidelines.

The bottom line is that there is a solar siting policy that addresses my concerns in place but only for the small solar projects.  Since I started tracking solar development project approvals late last year, 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 Department of Agriculture and Markets staff to prevent the loss of Prime Farmland, the area that will be 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 and there are no protections.

Conclusion

Hochul’s press release for the special working group included statements of support from New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball; New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher; Brian Reeves, President of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association; Tonya Van Slyke, Northeast Dairy Producers Association Executive Director; Jim Bittner, owner of Bittner Singer Orchards and Interim Director of the New York State Horticulture Society; and Jeffery M. Fetter, President of Scolaro Fetter Grizanti & McGough, P.C. and Chairman of the Business and Tax Practice and Agricultural Services Groups.  If these people truly care about the agricultural sector, then they should demand a moratorium on utility-scale solar developments until a responsible solar siting policy is put in place for utility-scale solar development. 

The moratorium would be lifted when the special working group develops policy recommendations. At a minimum that utility-scale solar developments should adhere to the Department of Agriculture and Markets goal 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.  It would be best if the same farmland protection criteria contained in the Public Service Commission distributed solar Roadmap were applied to all solar projects.

I have met people affected by these huge utility-scale solar projects.  It is so frustrating that their concerns and the viability of neighboring farms are being ignored when there are protections in place for smaller solar projects when the solutions are in place for small projects.  I wonder why and the only thing I can think of is that money talks. 

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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