This page consolidates my posts regarding solar development and impacts to the agricultural sector in New York.
New York Permitting Requirements
New York’s Article Ten process defines the permitting requirements for all large-scale electric generating new construction or expansion. It includes extensive and time-consuming public notification and public participation requirements. The 2011 revisions to the Article Ten law were intended to speed things up but were largely ineffective in that regard. In early April 2020, NYS passed the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act (AREGCBA) as part of the 2020-21 state budget. The legislation was intended to ensure that renewable generation is sited in a timely and cost-effective manner.
AREGCBA established the Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) which is housed within the Department of State. It will “consolidate the environmental review of major renewable energy facilities and provide a single forum to ensure that siting decisions are predictable, responsible, and delivered in a timely manner along with opportunities for input from local communities”. All large-scale, renewable energy projects 25 megawatts or larger will be required to obtain a siting permit from the Office of Renewable Energy Siting for new construction or expansion. However, during the transition developers can decide to finish their Article Ten permit application rather than convert to the new program. The AREGCBA application requirements are intended to primarily speed the process up but there is a provision that makes the opportunity for input from local communities a sham. In particular, ORES can find any local zoning code to be “unreasonably burdensome in view of CLCPA targets and the environmental benefits of the Facility” and simply over-ride the requirement. The very first permitting decision over-rode a local noise ordinance.
New York Solar Development
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 they have made in facilities, livestock, or equipment.
In my opinion the State should provide a plan for responsible siting for all sizes of facilities. There is a 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. Given the magnitude of the potential impacts to prime farmland I 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. Not surprisingly there has been no response.
I described a workshop “What’s the Deal with Renewable Energy & Agriculture?” co-hosted by New Yorkers for Clean Power (NYCP) and Alliance for Clean Energy NY (ACENY) that discussed the compatibility of solar energy development and agriculture in New York State. 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.
There are Ag and Markets guidelines that have been described in prepared testimony by Michael Saviola from the Department of Agriculture and Markets that I believe represent best practices and should be mandatory going forward. In particular, “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.” I think this is a reasonable goal and one that should be a mandatory requirement for all future projects.
New York’s publicity about their policies related to solar development and agriculture are hypocritical. On one hand when they congratulate the winner of the Leopold Conservation Award for its extraordinary environmental protection efforts, use of healthy soil practices that enhance water quality and ability to strengthen carbon sequestration” they cannot help plugging the Climate Resilient Farming Program. The problem is that they go on to claim: “At the same time, it helps protect at-risk agricultural land across the State.” The reality is that less than a month earlier Governor Hochul commended the permit approval of a project that converted 2,143 acres of prime farmland to industrial solar panels well in excess of the Ag and Markets guidelines. The fact is that unbridled utility-scale solar development is the major risk to agricultural land in the State and no amount of protection from any virtue signaling state agricultural program is going to stop that.
New York Solar Projects
This section describes my posts about specific solar projects. In a post on the Garnet Energy Center, I explained that the permit decision for that facility will be a litmus test to see if the State is going to protect farming communities. The Saviola 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”. Unfortunately, a nearby similar solar project was approved despite the fact that the Ag and Markets testimony noted that for the Trelina Solar Project “The Department estimates that greater than 68% of the of the limits of disturbance includes the conversion of farmland classified as Prime Farmland Soil” which clearly exceeds the Department goal.
The New York Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) approved Hecate Energy’s permit for the 500-megawatt (MW) Cider Solar Farm on July 25, 2022. Because this is the first permit issued by ORES for a project that’s application was initially filed with the new state office under the Section 94-c rules I published a post on it. The Cider Solar Farm will be a 500-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility capable of supplying 920,000 MWh (21% capacity factor) located in the towns of Elba and East Oakfield, Genesee County, NY. Unfortunately, the decision has negative ramifications. ORES over-ruled the Towns of Elba and Oakfield zoning ordinances that were “unreasonably burdensome” for the developer. The 4,650 acre Project Site is 41% Prime Farmland (1,912 acres) and another 27% (1,252 acres) would be Prime Farmland if drained. There is no scenario where this project meets the Ag and Markets goal.
I described the August 9, 2022 the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment (Siting Board) decision to deny approval to North Side Energy Center, LLC (North Side) to build and operate a 180-megawatt solar farm in St. Lawrence County. This project would not have exceeded the Ag and Markets goal for prime farmland conversion but the developer thought that they could get a permit for a project that impacted more than 500 acres of wetlands on a project footprint of 1,200 to 1,400 acres. While it is encouraging that there is an environmental threshold that will result in the denial of a permit there is nothing to indicate that there is a similar limit for conversion of prime farmland.
My hopes that recognition that the current protections for Prime Farmlands are inadequate so that the Garnet solar project application would be put on hold until responsible solar siting guidelines were developed dashed when the Siting Board approved the project on October 27, 2022. 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.
I described two recent New York initiatives address New York’s agriculture preservation. 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.” 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. Sadly, neither one addresses the lack of utility-scale solar development protection for prime farmlands.
Land use intensity of energy has been rarely studied in a rigorous way. Here we calculate land-use intensity of energy (LUIE) for real-world sites across all major sources of electricity, integrating data from published literature, databases, and original data collection. We find a range of LUIE that span four orders of magnitude, from nuclear with 7.1 ha/TWh/y to dedicated biomass at 58,000 ha/TWh/y.