New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050 and has included specific renewable energy deployment targets. On December 17, 2021 the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and New York State Department of Public Service Staff (DPS Staff) released “New York’s 10 GW Distributed Solar Roadmap: Policy Options for Continued Growth in Distributed Solar” that proposes a pathway to achieve a goal of 10 GW of distributed solar deployment by 2030. This post addresses the solar policy options related to agricultural protection and land use in that document and what is actually happening to agricultural land as a result of New York’s poor planning.
I have written extensively on implementation of the Climate Act because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability and affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York, 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.
The Executive Summary in the New York’s 10 GW Distributed Solar Roadmap: Policy Options for Continued Growth in Distributed Solar document describes the plan:
The current 6 gigawatt (GW) NY-Sun distributed solar program target is nearly achieved, with more than 93 percent of the target either completed or at an advanced stage of development.1 As called upon by New York State Governor Kathy Hochul during Climate Week 2021, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and New York State Department of Public Service Staff (DPS Staff) have analyzed the current distributed solar market in New York State and found that costs and NYSERDA-provided incentives have declined over time, while a thriving solar market has created approximately 12,000 jobs in New York. Together, these facts demonstrate the success of the NY-Sun program in transforming New York’s distributed solar industry. Additionally, NYSERDA directed further analysis of future revenues, costs, and market support mechanisms needed for distributed solar development beyond the 6 GW target.
Informed by this analysis, NYSERDA and DPS Staff developed this Distributed Solar Roadmap (Roadmap) to propose a pathway to achieve 10 GW of distributed solar deployment by 2030. With the current 6 GW by 2025 goal nearly achieved, the Roadmap explores various options for setting incentive levels to achieve the expanded NY-Sun goal of an incremental 4 GW (Incremental 4 GW Target). These options include various procurement structures, pricing models, and funding mechanisms
The press release bragging about the new framework to achieve at least 10 GW of distributed solar by 2030 included the following statement by Rory M. Christian, CEO of the Department of Public Service:
“I would like to thank Governor Hochul for her ardent support, encouraging the development of and access to solar energy in New York State. The roadmap that has been developed provides New York with the tools it needs to accelerate the transition to a clean-energy economy and meet our critically important climate goals.”
Since the NY-Sun initiative was launched, NYSERDA has worked closely with local governments, agricultural communities, other state agencies, and a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that projects are developed and sited in a manner that fully considers land use and are advanced in close collaboration with local stakeholders and agricultural communities. NYSERDA will extend its ongoing technical assistance for all municipalities in the state to assist localities in aligning solar development with local priorities. In addition, projects sited in New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ designated Agricultural Districts must follow Guidelines for Agricultural Mitigation for Solar Energy Projects and will be subject to an additional review process with the NYSDAM, as well as with local agricultural boards. Those projects that exceed 30 acres of impact to prime agricultural soils will be subject to mitigation fees.
Agricultural Protection and Land Use
This section lists the contents of Section III.a.4 Agricultural Protection and Land Use. In my opinion, if the policy is employed as they claim, then it should offer protection to prime farmland and local farming communities from distributed solar project development.
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.
This Roadmap foresees the existing requirements being extended to distributed solar projects developed through the Incremental 4 GW Target. The State’s Agricultural Technical Working Group (A-TWG), an independent advisory body convened by NYSERDA early in 2021, will continue to serve as the primary forum for stakeholder and interagency collaboration on policies and practices pertaining to distributed solar and agriculture. Guidance provided by the A-TWG and the New York State Farmland Protection Working Group will continue to inform agricultural preservation and mitigation requirements and practices going forward. NYSERDA also continues to provide and expand resources to landowners and local governments through the New York State Solar Guidebook and direct technical assistance.
Utility-Scale Solar Reality
Assuming that these numbers are correct, then I applaud the efforts of NYSERDA and NYSAGM. There is a major problem however. The majority of these distributed solar projects 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”. The reality is that a large fraction of the projected solar generation capacity will be utility-scale solar facilities that are much larger and have bigger impacts than the developers admit.
That are both being developed by NextEra Energy Resources. According to NextEra, Trelina will have 80 MW of solar capacity located on 418 acres within a 1,067-acre project area. Garnet is a 200-megawatt solar project with 20 megawatts of energy storage with a project area of 2,288 acres and facility area (area within in project fence line) of 1,054 acres. Both projects have Article Ten applications and Michael Saviola, an Associate Environmental Analyst with the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets (“Department”) submitted testimony describing the nature and extent of potential impacts of the projects on agricultural land.
Saviola’s prepared testimony responded to the question whether the projects had been “sited to avoid and/or minimize impacts to land uses within the Study Area and Project Area to the maximum extent practicable”. For Trelina his testimony noted that “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”. It goes on to explain 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”. While the application claims that solar panels will cover 325 acres, the testimony shows that “areas located outside of fenced areas will likely become fallow or orphaned as a result of screening requirements and setbacks” and 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”. The application claims that there will be temporary impact to agricultural land and farming, but the testimony argues that “a 30-year loss of the production of crops, livestock and livestock products constitutes a permanent conversion to a nonagricultural use.” Finally, even though a decommissioning plan has been prepared, the testimony states: “there is virtually no reasonable assurance that the project will be decommissioned and that the full resumption back to agricultural use will be reestablished.”
Saviola’s testimony for Garnet was very similar. The conclusion is the same: “the Department finds the Applications proposed siting is not consistent with the Department’s siting policy”. In this instance almost 30% of the project will be on active farmland classified as Prime Farmland. His testimony explains that “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”. Nearly three times as much land will lose crop production on “agricultural lands for a minimum of 30 years-worth of crop yields from some of the most productive farmland soils in the State”. The same points about temporary claimed impacts and decommissioning assurances were made. His testimony concludes: “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”.
Despite the recommendations of the Department, on November 30, 2021 the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment granted approval to Trelina Solar Energy Center to build and operate the 80-megawatt solar farm. According to a state press release, the Siting Board’s decision “follows a detailed review and robust public participation process to ensure that the solar farm meets or exceeds all siting requirements”. Clearly, the fact that the Department of Agriculture and Markets finding that the project was not consistent with their siting policy belies that claim.
The Garnet Energy Center Article Ten public comment period is open until May 1, 2022. While Saviola’s testimony is similar for both cases it is not identical. The Department requested information from NextEra and documented the responses. In general, NextEra’s response to questions simply repeated statements in the already submitted materials. The testimony notes that in response to a question about agricultural co-utilization: “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.” Saviola 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.”
NY-Sun Disconnect from Reality
As quoted earlier the State’s press release about the release of the framework was all praise. It claimed that NYSERDA has worked closely with local governments, agricultural communities, other state agencies, and a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that projects are developed and sited in a manner that fully considers land use and are advanced in close collaboration with local stakeholders and agricultural communities. In the future, they state that “projects sited in New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ designated Agricultural Districts must follow Guidelines for Agricultural Mitigation for Solar Energy Projects and will be subject to an additional review process with the NYSDAM, as well as with local agricultural boards.” The problem is that those initiatives only address distributed-solar projects.
Table 1 lists projected future New York State solar generating capacity for the Reference Case, Scenario 1 that represents recommendations by the Advisory Panels and Scenarios 2-4 that represent Integration Analysis mitigation scenarios. The mitigation scenarios were constructed so that the Climate Act targets could be achieved. Unfortunately, the Draft Scoping Plan does not document how much of the solar capacity is expected to come from distributed solar projects and how much from utility-scale projects. Assuming half is utility-scale solar that means we can expect 32.3 GW of industrial solar installations in Scenario 2. Two utility-scale projects are discussed in this article and they have average 5.26 MW per acre of fenced area covered with panels. Using that estimate, Scenario 2 utility-scale solar project solar panels will cover 170,000 acres or 266 square miles in 2050. The Department testimony explains that considering only the fenced area impacts underestimates the amount of land that actually be lost to most agricultural uses. The reality is that the impacts for utility-scale solar project will dwarf the land taken up by distributed solar projects (much of which is sited on buildings) in NY-Sun and there are no equivalent farmland protections for massive utility-scale projects under development.
Table 1: Mitigation Scenarios Solar Capacity (MW)
Integration Analysis – Key Drivers and Outputs (updated December 29, 2021)
I submitted comments on March 17 to the Garnet Energy Center Article Ten application docket contending that the project should follow responsible solar siting guidelines. In my post describing the comment submittal I argued that responsible siting guidelines based on the American Farmland Trust report, the state’s policies for distributed solar described above in the 10GW Solar Roadmap and the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority’s Agricultural Technical Working Group analyses will likely eventually be used to form the basis of a state-wide policy for utility-scale solar development. Without those policies in place, it is inappropriate to allow projects like the Garnet project to proceed. Obviously, the fact that the Department of Ag & Markets testified that “the facility will result in or contribute to a significant and adverse disproportionate agricultural impact upon the local farming community” demonstrates that the project is inconsistent with the NY-Sun’s commitment to responsible solar development.
Given the magnitude of the potential impacts to prime farmland I also submitted a comment to the Climate Action Council recommending that they impose a moratorium on the development of utility-scale solar projects until permitting requirements have been established for responsible solar siting and protection of prime farmlands. I said that even though the Department of Agriculture and Markets has policies on solar energy projects, the Article Ten Trelina Solar Project was approved despite the fact that it did not adhere to that policy. I argued that, at a minimum, all utility-scale projects should adhere to those policies. A moratorium would not only protect communities and farmland but it would also help meet Climate Act goals. Using the Draft Scoping Plan solar projections and land use estimates for solar projects in the Article Ten queue in 2020 suggest that the smallest Scoping Plan scenario solar equipment area covered will be 266 square miles. Moreover, there are Climate Act considerations. The law has a “net-zero” target by 2050 that requires 15% sequestration. One of the strategies to meet that target is soil carbon management. Taking productive farmland out of production hinders that goal.
New York’s 10 GW Distributed Solar Roadmap: Policy Options for Continued Growth in Distributed Solar document outlines a policy approach for responsible distributed solar siting. I have no argument with their approach or their results. However, there is a major problem. The majority of these distributed solar projects 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”. There are no similar guidelines in place for the larger utility-scale projects. Even though the Draft Scoping Plan does not specify how much projected solar generation capacity will be distributed as opposed to utility-scale, it is clear that massive amounts of land will be required for utility-scale development.
In December 2021 the State announced that NY-Sun projects are developed and sited in a manner that fully considers land use and are advanced in close collaboration with local stakeholders and agricultural communities. However, in the same month the Trelina Solar Project was approved despite the fact that the Department of Ag & Markets testified that “the 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”. There are numerous initiatives underway to ensure that the solar developments necessary to meet the Climate Act goals are sited in a responsible fashion. However, projects that inconsistent with those guidelines are being developed and will remove “agricultural lands for a minimum of 30 years-worth of crop yields from some of the most productive farmland soils in the State”. It is time for a moratorium on these developments until that guidance is in place.