Is solar development in New York eating up critical farmland?

— Photo from David Whipple

The Whipple property in Knox hosts an 11-acre solar farm on what used to be hayfields. Property owner David Whipple says that the money the family receives from the solar arrays is more than what they would have made farming hay. 

ALBANY COUNTY — In 2017, the town of Knox approved the first commercial solar farm in the Hilltowns, which would be installed by the solar developer Borrego on the old Whipple Farm, an heirloom farm property dating back to 1797. 

The 110-acre property has been subdivided among Whipple family members. In exchange for leasing a portion of his hayfield for the 11-acre project, David Whipple said, the Whipples receive steady payments from Borrego to produce 2 megawatts of solar power for the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute. 

For the Whipples, it’s a comfortable arrangement that provides them with a revenue stream less variable than that offered by hay production, which Whipple told The Enterprise last month is as risky as any other kind of farming, since it’s dependent on equipment and fuel costs, as well as weather conditions. 

But it’s an arrangement that worries others, like State Senate candidate and Rensselaerville farmer Rich Amedure, who told The Enterprise during an interview last month that he’s concerned the recent solar development spurred by New York’s relatively new decarbonization goals and subsequent incentives is depriving the agriculture-heavy state of another non-renewable commodity: farmland, and particularly prime farmland. 

Some towns, like New Scotland, have labeled prime soils and zoned to protect them.

The concern is shared by the state itself, which in 2021, according to its Farmland Protection Working Group, contained 154 agriculture districts that comprised over 9 million acres of land, occupied by 26,246 farms that collectively farm nearly 6.5 million acres. The areas of the agricultural districts generally follow the distribution of prime farmland, which is mapped out by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. 

Prime farmland is that which has been determined to hold optimum characteristics for crop production, and is most densely concentrated in Western New York and the Finger Lakes region. 

One of the counties densest with prime farmland, Monroe County, also has the greatest installed solar capacity in upstate New York, with 1,842 projects producing a capacity of 148.5 megawatts, according to data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. In downstate New York, Long Island’s Suffolk County appears to contain the most prime farmland, and has the greatest installed solar capacity in the state at 654.2 megawatts across more than 44,000 projects.

Farmland is typically “perfect” for solar projects from the perspective of a developer, since it’s flat, penetrable ground that’s usually situated in a rural area away from large numbers of people who might oppose a project, and relatively close to existing transmission lines, according to Senior Extension Associate and researcher David Kay, of Cornell’s Department of Global Development. 

That’s compared to other types of vast acreages, such as forests and wetlands, Kay told The Enterprise, which entail serious environmental impacts and additional bureaucratic hurdles, and all the costs associated with those.

Around a year-and-a-half ago, Kay said, he and his associates carried out an analysis of 40 projects that were “most advanced in the permitting process at that time” in the state, and found that around 75 percent of them were sited on farmland, since the economics favor that strategy. 

“I think there’s no question that … unless something changes dramatically in terms of economic or policy incentives, it’s going to go on farmland,” he said of solar facilities.

Since before the state announced its energy standard goals in 2019, according to the state’s farmland protection group, NYSERDA has evaluated large-scale renewable energy projects with site character in mind, showing preference for projects on sites that were not considered prime farmland by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In 2019, construction-mitigation guidelines were introduced to add steps that awarded project developers had to take to ensure that any occupied prime farmland could be reconverted for agricultural use at the end of a project’s lifespan, the group says, which is typically around 25 years.

In 2021, the group states, the state introduced financial disincentives for projects on certain kinds of farmland, requiring agricultural mitigation payments for projects that occupy land made up of more than 30 acres of soil categorized as being in Mineral Soil Groups 1-4, the top four rankings of soil quality (not including their sub-categories). 

The payment formula for 2022 was $1,194 per acre of MSG 1 occupied by a project; $1,063 per acre of MSG 2; $943 per acre of MSG 3; and $812 per acre of MSG 4, according to the group.

That disincentive was very successful in preventing excessive occupation of high-quality soils, the group says, with the average overlap of project footprints on those soils dropping from 40 percent for those approved prior to 2021 to around 22 percent for projects approved that year. 

“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 group says. “For 48 of these projects, all unaffected portions of the farms hosting the solar projects will remain in agricultural production, a total of 3,385 acres.”


The impact

Despite the pains taken by the state to prevent the loss of farmland, the fact remains that New York has highly ambitious goals to meet on a tight deadline, with Governor Kathy Hochul announcing in April that the state will need at least 10 gigawatts of distributed solar by 2030, which is around 6 more than it currently has. 

But at a statewide level, Kay said, even estimates that the state will eventually need up to 50 gigawatts of renewable energy don’t cause him much worry about food production being seriously impacted. 

“At least, I have seen no analysis that made that case in a compelling way,” he added. 

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the overall capacity-weighted average for direct land-use per megawatt hour is 7.3 acres, so 10 gigawatts would require around 73,000 acres of land. Assuming every acre of that were actively farmed prior to the installation of panels, that’s around 1 percent of the total active farmland in the state. 

But the story changes at the local level, where, obviously, any one project takes up a higher proportion of the land compared to that of the state. The question of what the effect might be is basically unknown, Kay said, since there’s no real basis for comparison that researchers can rely on as they make observations and projections about the impact of solar. 

An important factor — and what may be the biggest unknown, Kay said — is the effectiveness of what’s known as agrivoltaics, or solar technology and practices that allow farming to continue on land occupied by panels.

One of the more intuitive examples of this is a livestock farm where animals can continue to graze under panels that are built higher off the ground than is typical. Not only do grazing animals help keep panel-inhabited lands clear of tall, sun-blocking foliage, but panels can provide shade and improve animals’ quality of life and, potentially, their products

The basic compatibility of grazing with solar projects is well-established, but other things “that might turn out to be a good idea” are still in “pilot or experimental stages,” Kay said. 

One surprising example is a notion that shade may be as beneficial for plants as it is for animals, especially in climates that are especially hot and dry — which may well become the case in New York under advanced climate change, he said.

Shade, Kay explained, helps soils retain moisture against the sun, which is good for plants, and the plants themselves can respond to high levels of intense sunlight by diminishing and re-allocating the energy they dedicate to different life functions. 

And, while different from a strict hybrid use, European guidelines cited by the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy suggest that the soil recovery period allowed by low-impact solar projects can benefit soil health and biodiversity down the line. 

The problem with hybridization, as Kay sees it, might be one of scale, with larger solar farms (the largest of which was just approved this year at 500 megawatts occupying 3,000 acres) being less usable for farming. 

“Is grazing that many acres of sheep going to make sense on that site?” he asked rhetorically. 

Ultimately, the answers are not black and white, Kay said, since even in cases where there are no benefits conferred from panels, it doesn’t make farming certain crops impossible, and the question then becomes what productivity threshold needs to be met for the dual use to make economic sense. 

“Let’s say you plant corn or soybeans under panels,” he said. “It’s not like nothing is going to grow. Something will grow. But maybe they’re stunted and not very productive.”


The farmer

Yet another important consideration in all this is what the financial impact will be on the farmers who choose to host solar projects, which is typically a positive impact, Kay said. 

Kay acknowledged that it’s hard to get empirical data on lease payments since they’re detailed in private contracts, but that the average is probably around $1,500 per acre, which is in line with what The Enterprise reported in 2017. 

Kay described that figure as “an order of magnitude” more than what an agricultural operation will yield, making it very attractive to farmers. 

Kay said that research is beginning on the question of what farmers do with that financial windfall. 

Farmers who choose to invest the money into new equipment or to clear debts would possibly make for a more efficient business, Kay suggested, while others may simply decide to retire, since the average farmer is in late middle-age, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. 

“We’re trying to do some survey work to find out what people who are signing these leases are likely to do with the money,” he said. 

Whipple, in Knox, told The Enterprise that, five years after making the agreement with Borrego, he’s still pleased with the decision to go with rental money over crop money. Plus, since his farm sits on the kind of rocky, clay soil — not prime farmland — that Whipple says is abundant in the town, there’s no worry about ruining the land.

“It is hard to garden; it is hard to work in general,” Whipple said. “The clay holds rainwater in the topsoil in the spring and makes the fields muddy and unworkable until later on in June most years. 

“Many other soil types can get two cuttings of hay in a year, but most years we can only get one cutting because the fields are too wet in May. After that, the clay soil gets so hard it is like concrete. I am amazed my ancestors persevered farming here for all of those generations.”

“It helps pay the taxes,” he said. “From the angle of using the land as a farmer does to make money, it occupies less than 10 percent of the total property here but it does produce revenue, and that’s a hard thing to do with hayfields.”

Whipple did not divulge what he’s paid by the company, saying only that it’s “probably in line with industry standards,” and that regular revenue “can really help stabilize the operation of an older farm.”

He also said that another benefit was the driveway that Borrego put in as an access road to the back half of the property, where the array is, and which Whipple uses to get his equipment around more easily. 

Overall, he said, the array “is very helpful for us. Ultimately, if land is not producing value, it inevitably gets chopped up and houses are built. This is a part of our property that is producing value to us, it’s something we’re going to have for the next 25 to 30 years.” 

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