Sun, shade, and the symbiosis of agrivoltaics

We had high hopes in 2016 when we wrote about the first commercial solar facility in the Helderberg Hilltowns.

Long aware of the threats posed by climate change and the need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, we believed this was a good beginning.

The town of Knox had worked ahead of most municipalities  — encouraged by a volunteer group that formed in 2008 — to pass regulations that would encourage renewable energy while protecting the landscape.

David Whipple, the landowner who agreed to lease his farm to a solar developer — part of the rocky land his family had farmed for eight generations — told us at the time, “We decided that a solar array is just another extension of the farm … Instead of trees or hay, the farm will be harvesting sunlight.”

Neighbors were contacted and none were opposed. Even today, few people realize the solar facility is there.

The Paris Accord, where the nations of the world got together to try to control climate change, had the year before established 2030 as the date by which the global economy was to turn away from unrelenting use of fossil fuels.

Since then, as many solar facilities have been or are being built in our coverage area, we have seen drawbacks to the placement of some of the facilities.

However, in those same years — we are nearly at the halfway mark on the Paris Accord deadline — we have also seen how the imperative for renewable energy has grown. Only a person wearing blinders is spared the vision of droughts and floods, hurricanes and fires that have wreaked havoc with our world.

The solution to saving our planet without destroying our local quality of life comes in careful planning.

One of the issues frequently raised locally is the fear that commercial solar facilities will eat up the farmland we depend on to feed ourselves.

Our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, has taken a careful look at that concern and, while his front-page article this week makes clear many questions remain unanswered, the planning on a statewide level offers hope and comfort.

The state’s Farmland Protection Working Group has mapped out New York’s 26,246 farms that collectively farm nearly 6.5 million acres. New York’s agricultural districts are, for the most part, on prime farmland.

And, as David Kay, of Cornell’s Department of Global Development, told Zweifel, that same farmland is typically “perfect’ for solar facilities since it is flat, penetrable ground usually in rural areas away from large numbers of people who might oppose a project and fairly close to transmission lines. Kay and his associates found that three-quarters of the 40 solar projects they studied were on farmland.

In 2019, statewide guidelines were introduced to be sure that prime farmland would be converted back to agricultural use when the typically 25-year life of a facility had ended. This will give a chance for reassessment in a quarter-century of how food and farm needs are being met.

Meanwhile, last year the state introduced financial disincentives for protecting land with the best soils, which have been working, Kay said.

Still, the state’s goal is to reach 10 gigawatts of distributed solar by 2030 — 6 more than it has now. Ten gigawatts would need about 73,000 acres of land and, even if every one of those acres were actively farmed, that’s only about 1 percent of the total active farmland in New York

Kay said New York could eventually need up to 50 gigawatts but does not believe it will seriously impact food production.

New York is a home-rule state so individual municipalities can set much of their own zoning. We urge other towns to follow New Scotland’s lead in keeping agriculture viable. In 2017, the town passed a solar law to protect its prime farmland and forests.

The law, detailed by our New Scotland reporter, Sean Mulkerrin, says that no large-scale projects are permitted on:

— Land that has prime soils, defined as “land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and that is available for these uses”;

— Land that has soils of statewide importance, “where less than 50 percent of the components in the [area] are prime but a combination of lands of prime or statewide importance is 50 percent or more of the [area] composition”; or

— Land that has more than an acre of mature forest, which contains trees that are predominantly six inches in diameter or more.

Innovation can provide solutions as well as regulation.

We learned a new word this week by reading Zweifel’s story: agrivoltaics. Pioneered in Asia and Europe, agrivoltaics uses land for both agriculture and solar photovoltaic power at the same time.

In our country, this most often applies to having animals graze in fields with solar panels. In a symbiotic relationship, the grazing animals, like sheep, clear the land of foliage that could block the sun while the solar panels themselves provide shade for the animals, increasing their productivity.

Further, the shade from solar panels can be good for some kinds of crops, helping soil retain moisture against the sun. Agrivoltaics have the potential to increase global land productivity by an impressive 35 to 73 percent, according to one study.

Beyond that, the added income for farmers can help those struggling to stay in business. As David Whipple told our reporter, the regular revenue he gets from leasing part of his property for solar panels “can really help stabilize the operation of an older farm.”

That helps all of us. Keeping land undeveloped does not tax municipal systems, maintains the aesthetics that people value in rural areas, and reduces the greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change in the first place.

We are reminded of the once-dominant theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, the English cleric and economist who, in his 1798 book on the “Principle of Population,” posited the need for population growth to be limited by food production. Malthus, however, didn’t foresee the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the technological advancements that would allow food production to increase.

While we do not discount concerns about farmland disappearing, we believe development is a more likely culprit than solar arrays. We urge continued responsible planning — on both the state and local levels — and we urge farmers to consider the advantages of agrivoltaics.

We live in a rich, industrialized country and, as leaders from nations around the world are gathered right now in Egypt for the international climate talks led by the United Nations, we are keenly aware of what we owe the poorer countries of the world — often the most ravaged by our greenhouses gasses. And that is to do all we can not just to protect our own quality of life but to make the needed changes to do the same for all the citizens of the world.

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