Cornell hosting webinars on agrivoltaics, preservation of farmland amid solar boom

— Photo by Lindsay France for Cornell University
Lexie Hain of the American Solar Grazing Association advocates for what's known as agrivoltaics — essentially the coexistence of agriculture and solar energy facilities on the same property. In this photo, Hain is watching sheep graze in front of solar panels, getting the nutrition they need while keeping the property's foliage from overgrowing, thereby ensuring the panels have the best chance to capture sunlight.

ALBANY COUNTY — To help municipalities adjust to the influx of renewable-energy project proposals, Cornell University — along with Penn State and the New York and Pennsylvania farm bureaus — is hosting a series of free webinars on agrivoltaics and farmland preservation.

Agrivoltaics refers to the hybrid use of farmland for agriculture and solar-energy collection, a relatively new concept that aims to mitigate the spatial impact of solar energy development. The relationship between renewable-energy facilities and agriculture is a complex one, as The Enterprise has reported in the past, since farmers, though they might (ideally temporarily) lose land for growing crops, stand to benefit from the leases offered by development companies. 

But, in New York, the decision to host such a facility is not up to just the landowner, but a municipal planning board and, by extension, all the residents in a town, so a delicate balance and awareness of different options is required, which is where the webinars come in.

“We see new opportunities for landowners, or landowners are certainly approaching different elected officials and saying, ‘There’s a [renewables] project, we’re a part of this project with a lease, and we’d like to move forward,’” said speaker Tom Murphy, former director of Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, in an overview during the first webinar, held on Jan. 5. “And then we see communities are saying, ‘Yeah, but we’re not quite ready for this, in some regard ….’ 

“Communities are trying to deal with the challenges and understand what the implications of this will be going forward,” he continued, “one of those being the agricultural side. So, again, we’re going to be getting deeper into that as we go forward.”

Murphy’s generalization of how these scenes have played out in various towns is nearly identical to what Westerlo went through a few years ago when an onslaught of solar projects were approved before the town got overwhelmed and adopted a moratorium while it worked out renewable energy laws, which it passed in 2021. 

The Westerlo Planning Board is staying ahead of the curve, having received authorization from the town board on Jan. 4 to register for the agrivoltaic webinars. Planning board Chairman Beau Loendorf — who was first appointed to the board in February of 2021, well after the moratorium was put in place — could not be reached for comment this week. 


First webinar

The primary educational speakers for the first webinar were Pam Adams, a sustainability planner for Centre Region Council of Governments in Pennsylvania, who spoke about the dynamics between solar energy and agriculture, and Peter Butler, a community planner for the Centre County Planning and Community Development Office in Pennsylvania, who spoke about how municipalities can use geographic information systems (GIS) to tackle development challenges.

Adams pointed out is that, in Pennsylvania and New York, agricultural land is on the decline, and the reason is largely that there’s pressure to develop these lands into single-family housing areas — something that Knox farmer Henry Whipple referenced when discussing with The Enterprise last year his decision to lease part of his hayfield to a solar developer — not solar fields necessarily. 

Nevertheless, Adams said, agricultural land is generally preferred by companies over other flat, unoccupied lands that are more expensive to build on, such as parking lots (where, when present, solar panels are typically atop a platform to leave room for cars) or brownfields, which are developed parcels that are not currently in use, and often contaminated, such as at the site of a demolished building. 

This can be good for farmers, who, as mentioned, might find the extra income from a leasing agreement useful, particularly if economic strain is enough that they risk losing their farm altogether. More broadly, she said, communities benefit through contributing to lower emissions, and (in Pennsylvania, at least) increasing their tax base. 

In The Enterprise coverage area, solar facilities don’t yield tax dollars because developers have signed payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreements which, as the name suggests, swap out property-value taxes for annual payments of a certain amount — usually with an escalation clause — that are much less than what they would otherwise be paying. 

For instance, RIC Energy, in Knox, will be paying between $14,000 and $19,000 per year for 15 years in Knox, plus additional payments to the local school district and Albany County, for a first-year total of about $55,000. That’s compared to the roughly $200,000 it would probably pay in property taxes, Knox Supervisor Russ Pokorny told The Enterprise in September. 

Westerlo Supervisor Matthew Kryzak told The Enterprise last year that the PILOT payments aren’t worth the headache for the town, which has five facilities to keep an eye on.

“It creates a new set of issues that we didn’t have before,” Kryzak said. “With the amount of time we have to spend dealing with the five commercial solar farms, I’m not sure where Westerlo sits right now that there’s much of a benefit.”

Another broad advantage of solar, Adams said, is energy diversification, which enhances security and resilience of the grid. 

But these come with tradeoffs, she said, such as potentially increasing the value of land and pricing farmers out, and impacting soil quality, in addition to impacts that are not yet known because of the relative novelty of solar facilities. 

As such, she and her colleagues have identified in a report three “best practices” for municipal officials to consider when reviewing a solar proposal over agricultural land, with the goal of meeting at least one of them. 

The first is using agrivoltaics, which should be accompanied by a plan detailing how this would be accomplished, and regulated by minimum requirements, such as how much of the parcel will be usable for crops. 

The second is whether the facility is in a wellhead protection area, which is an area where land is managed to prevent drinking-water contamination and is an unlikely spot for actual agricultural use. 

The third is whether an equivalent acreage of the land occupied can be placed under an agricultural conservation easement, which would not necessarily protect the land being used should anything damage the ability to farm there but would ensure that other land is protected. 

In general, Adams said, facilities should not be placed over prime soils. 



Mapping can be a highly useful tool when figuring out how to regulate development, Butler, the geographic information systems expert, explained. 

He said that he and his colleagues put together a map where solar facilities would be feasible in their county, looking at the location of high voltage power lines and substations, since solar companies are generally seeking to develop near these resources. (Of note is that this information is not always easy to obtain, with Adams pointing out that she was not able to acquire it because of Homeland Security reasons, even though both she and Butler are government employees working in the same area.)

They also looked at other factors that restrict solar development, since it’s easier than finding out where it’s feasible. 

Something like this, he said, helps convey important data, particularly when the data includes public input. 

“Unless they know the intricacies of the zone they’re in, most people would appreciate visual aids they can interact with at a glance and see, ‘I’m in an ag security zone,’ … [or] ‘I guess I realized my property actually wasn’t an easement,’” Butler said, adding that the more local a map is, the easier it is to add other layers of intricacy. 

All that, in turn, can help empower residents to take any concerns that come up to local officials, he said. 

“It’s important to think of what matters to the community,” Butler said. “Does your community value preservation of agricultural soils? Does your community value historical aesthetics?”

“I definitely would encourage people to provide data, thoughts, opinions to local municipalities,” he also said, “because as solar becomes more prevalent, there’s going to be a progressive need for adjustment of pre-existing ordinances as oftentimes there will not be ordinances that fully encompass where we are in the solar world.”


The second “Planning with Agrivoltaics in Mind” webinar, which will explore agrivoltaics in more depth, is on Jan. 19, from noon to 1:15 p.m., and can be registered for here. The following webinar, “Planning with Agrivoltaics in Mind,” will be on Feb. 2, from noon to 1:15 p.m., and can be registered for here. The last webinar — a question-and-answer session — will be on Thursday, Feb. 16, from noon to 1:15 p.m., and can be registered for here.

Registration links, dates, and summaries can all be found at

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