Harvesting the Sun
AGRICULTURE IS GETTING AN ADDED dimension in the Hudson Valley as farmers gear up to harvest a new crop: power from the sun.
“Solar farms”—arrays of photovoltaic cells designed to supply electricity for communities—are beginning to dot the landscape. These fields of solar panels, sited on leased farmland, provide income for farmers and potential savings on electric bills for some consumers, but there are concerns that solar farms could pose a threat to prime agricultural land if carelessly sited.
“This may be broadening the definition of ‘farming,’ but it is farming—we’re just farming the sun,” Rich Winter, CEO of Delaware River Solar, told Ithaca.com in a 2017 interview. Simplifying the economics, he explained, “If a guy takes 10 acres for solar and farms the other 60 around it, that potentially [is] more productive than [planting] the 10 acres in hay or whatever they are growing.”
In March, Delaware River Solar completed installation of New York State’s largest solar farm to date—9,800 panels with a 2.7 megawatt capacity—on Winter’s own land in Callicoon (Sullivan County). The project, already at full capacity, will reduce energy bills for 350 nearby households and small businesses, Winter says.
In May, NRG Community Solar, an offshoot of NRG Energy, a Texas-based megacompany and one of the largest independent energy producers in the country, was ready to cut the ribbon for a 32-acre solar farm in the Orange County Town of Minisink. Its 16,000 panels will produce 5.29 megawatts of electricity. The company reportedly has six more solar farms under development in the region, at an average cost of $6 million each.
The economics of the community solar model are plain, but not simple. The landowner receives lease payments from the solar farm developer for use of the land (usually 8 to 40 acres), and the electricity generated by the solar farm is delivered directly to an existing utility grid. Consumers who are linked to that grid can opt to pay a monthly fee (a “subscription”) to the solar farm and then receive credits on their electric bills based on the amount of their subscription, the amount of energy produced by the farm and their own energy usage. Subscribers are likely to see some reduction in their electric bill, though the monthly credits are variable and savings are not guaranteed.
Developers are responsible for decommissioning the arrays when leases expire and returning the land to the condition they found it, presumably suitable for resumed farming. Though most solar companies lease land, Boston-based Nexamp, Inc., has purchased acreage in Orange and Dutchess Counties for solar installations, according to Eric Misbach, Nexamp’s Manager of Community Solar Operations.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which provides financial incentives and technical assistance to developers and communities through its NY-Sun program, lists 14 operational community solar projects around the state, with a combined capacity of 6.7 megawatts. An additional 256 projects, with a projected total capacity of 785 megawatts, are in the planning stages. NY-Sun director David Sandbank notes, “Over the next two years, we expect to see a significant portion of community solar projects that are currently being supported through NY-Sun to be completed.”
Orange County leads the state with 33 solar farm proposals, a reflection of the amount of land near power lines available for rent, its proximity to New York City and its relatively high electric rates. There are 21 proposed projects in Ulster County, 20 in Sullivan, 11 in Dutchess and 7 in Greene. Central Hudson Gas and Electric, which services more than 300,000 customers in the central Hudson Valley from Coeymans (Albany County) to Highlands (Orange County) has received applications for 80 community solar projects. Orange and Rockland Utilities, which serves 305,000 electric customers, primarily in Rockland, western Orange and southern Sullivan Counties, is holding 64 applications.
Community solar is a relatively new development in the expanding eld of clean energy generation. Since July 2015, the state has allowed homeowners, renters, businesses and schools to share a single renewable energy source, stimulating interest in larger, community solar projects. Utilizing current technology, about 6 acres of solar arrays will produce 1 megawatt. For comparison, a rooftop solar facility in Kingston operated by Heritage Solar and Ryan Insurance produces 166.5 kilowatts, or less than .2 megawatts.
Jeff Irish, co-founder of Hudson Solar, in Rhinebeck, says that 75 percent of his potential customers for rooftop solar could not be accommodated due to the location of their house or the physical arrangement of their roof. He recently signed up 40 households, small businesses and residential tenants to partner in the purchase of the panels for a 214-kilowatt solar farm on a one-acre vacant eld in Clermont owned by a local landscaper. Irish said that he prefers this type of smaller installation and is searching for additional sites.
Most of the solar farm projects proposed for the Hudson Valley have a capacity of around two megawatts. But the state recently injected $1.4 billion into 26 utility-scale projects—22 of them large solar farms, including sites in Orange, Ulster, Columbia and Greene Counties. The projects are in part a response to a mandate set by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that 50 percent of the state’s electricity should come from renewable energy sources by 2030. According to the US Department of Energy, current annual New York State usage is about 149 gigawatts; as of March 2018, solar generation had reached 1 gigawatt; NY-Sun promises 3 gigawatts by 2023.
After the state’s approval of the community solar model, local farmers were flooded with lease offers, and local officials were caught by surprise. Some jurisdictions declared a moratorium on solar projects and rewrote zoning laws to facilitate the review of proposals. Objections were raised in some communities about the proximity of the panels to homes.
Utilities, too, have had to make adjustments. “Too much generation can overload the wires and equipment, so there can be limitations on how many can be installed in any given area,” says Central Hudson spokesman John Maserjian. “We’re working with developers to help identify areas that are most suitable, and we’re investing in our electric system so that we can better accommodate these systems.”
Farmers have largely welcomed the opportunity to add to their incomes without increasing their costs, although some balk at calling the projects “farms.”
Orrin Pierson, whose family has farmed land outside Middletown since 1790, said during a 2016 Mount Hope Town Board meeting (at which his now-under construction solar farm proposal was reviewed) that he wanted to “perpetuate” the land where he was born and raised and his parents were buried. “I am never going to have to sell any more land,” Pierson told the board. “I will be able to farm and the view around there will always be the same.”
After an arduous review, Borrego Solar is constructing a 5.6-megawatt solar farm on 25 acres leased from Pierson. The system, with a life span of 25 to 40 years, will serve 1,200 customers.
At Athanas Farm in Hyde Park, farmer Mike Athanas struggles to earn a pro t from the sale of the fruits and vegetables he grows. He finished last year $5,000 in the red. “There’s no farm up here that’s living high on the hog,” he says. That’s why Athanas was happy to lease land he wasn’t tilling to Omni Navitas, a Boston-based solar energy development group, for two solar farms supplying 900 residential customers. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall, and Omni Navitas is prospecting for sites for other projects in the region.
Local planners, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and Scenic Hudson all have urged municipalities to discourage the placement of solar farms on valuable agricultural land. Orange County has estimated that 514 acres (out of a total of 88,000 acres of farmland) would be used by 33 solar projects it has reviewed. The Orange County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board recently “strongly advised municipalities to avoid siting solar panels or solar ‘farms’ on soils that are designated prime agricultural soils or are of statewide significance... such solar facilities should be sited on soils less desirable for production agriculture.” Montgomery farmer and Board Chair Jack Hoeffner noted, “Every farm has marginal ground” on which solar arrays can be installed.
Proponents claim that solar arrays not only may be harmonious and consistent with agricultural uses, they may even enhance some farming practices. If the supporting poles are raised to the correct height and the panels are protected, for example, animals could continue to graze and live in the fields. Delaware River Solar plans to experiment raising lambs at its Callicoon solar farm, and the Piersons intend to use sheep to cut the grass under the array on their farm.
Cypress Creek Renewables, which plans to install solar arrays throughout New York State to generate 750 megawatts at a cost of $500 million, has promised that all its solar farms will include habitat suitable for bees and other vital pollinators. The “pollinator friendly” Underhill solar farm near Poughkeepsie, currently under construction, is one of the rst to incorporate the habitat, which scores 90 or better on a “pollinator-friendly scorecard” developed by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. A similar Cyprus Creek installation helps power the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Thurmont, Maryland.
Orange County Planning Commissioner David Church is cautiously optimistic about the future of solar farms in the region. “In my conversations with farmers and other interests, there is a real frustration that these projects are called ‘farms’ at all, particularly when they often result in farmland going out of production,” Church warns. “But where they are well- sited to complement a farm operation, solar installations can be a real financial benefit to the farmer.”
“It’s a great deal,” Athanas says. “I feel like the Johnny Appleseed of solar power.”