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Cornell Study Considers Balance Between NY's Solar Development And Farmland

Solar array at the Essex Farm
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Solar array at the Essex Farm

Solar is a key piece of New York’s goal of reaching 70% renewable energy generation by 2030 under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. With farmland seen by solar companies as prime real estate for their arrays, new research from Cornell University considers how to best balance solar development with the state’s agricultural sector and food production needs. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Max Zhang, the study’s senior author and professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell.Zhang: New York is really the frontier of solar development in the country, right. We have very aggressive goals for the climate, have a goal for solar and it's really exciting place to be, and it's a very critical time in history for us to make a difference.

Levulis: In your study, you make the argument that solar companies need to use lower quality agricultural land for their projects in New York. Now, when making that determination, how do you define good agricultural land versus lower quality land?

Zhang: So there are multiple definitions for that. One is, you know, soil quality. I think that's typically a key indicator of the land. In our study, we used that as a key indicator to tell whether it's good agricultural land or low-quality agricultural land.

Levulis: You also say in this study that solar power developers need to avoid concentrated development. Why?

Zhang: So the idea here is, you know, for example, you have a solar farm in your region, right. And if one farm being leased for developing solar projects, it's probably fine. But if you take more than that, some of those service companies, you know, for example, a tractor company, you know, they may have to leave the region, because there's just not enough business for them to stay there. So that's why we argue that we should try to avoid having too concentrated development of solar projects so that we can still maintain, you know, reasonable agricultural activities.

A map showing suitable land for solar development in New York
Credit https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0960148121004900

Levulis: And taking a look at the map that goes along with your study, the land deemed most suitable for solar power development in New York is concentrated mostly in Western and Northern New York, along with them, some scattered pockets throughout Central New York, in the Mohawk Valley, along with some additional spots in the Hudson Valley. Does that reality make it difficult to avoid that concentration of solar developments that you just mentioned, especially since a large amount of the energy consumption actually occurs in New York City?

Zhang: You know, that's a challenge. So the suitable land, you know, at least based on our analysis tend to be conjured around the region, as you mentioned, here. So that's why I think the policy really is important here, right. So we know the potential consequences for concentrated solar development in certain regions. So that's why we also want to emphasize there are other strategies we need to take to avoid that.

Levulis: What are some of those other strategies?

Zhang: You know, one strategy, of course, is to use low quality land like we just discussed. But if we have to use agricultural land, we should explore so-called dual-use option or so-called agrovoltaic, you know, agriculture, photovoltaic options. I think there are lot of interesting ideas. Actually, a lot of ideas have implemented on individual basis by a lot of developers, and we should promote those best practices in the world. What we call low impact solar farm.

Levulis: Now your study mentioned that taking into account New York's 9 gigawatt goal for offshore wind, the state will need about 21 gigawatts of utility scale solar energy to reach its target of 70% renewable energy generation by 2030. But you also state that the utility scale solar energy potential on nonagricultural land is more than 22 gigawatts. So why not just use that nonagricultural land?

Zhang: That's really good question. It really boils down to economics. So there is other type of land available, but you know, there's a reason why, for example, our study shows 40% of existing solar farms are already on agricultural land, right. So there's a good reason why we see this, you know, solar taking over agricultural land, because the agricultural lands are typically flat and cleared of vegetation and close to roads and to the power infrastructure. So those are all the same criteria that solar developers are looking for to lower their costs. So basically what our argument here is yes there is available land, but without any policy intervention, we'll see a lot of the future solar development will be on agricultural land.

Levulis: So amid all this, what would be your advice to farmers and landowners in New York amid this solar push?

Zhang: And that's also a very good question. I'm not a farmer, right? I'm just providing our opinion or scientific basis for what we think is the right thing to do. But at the same time, I'm not speaking for the farmer. So I would say first of all, I want to emphasize, it's very critical for us to take actions to combat climate change. And solar energy is playing a very, very important role here. And you know, solar PV is generally an environmentally benign technology. There is no pollution on site. Also, it's relatively low maintenance. But it’s very land use intensive. So that's what we are talking about here. Typical we are talking about five to seven acres per megawatt of solar installation. Right now, the typical utility scale solar farm is about five megawatts. And if we take the lower end, say five acres or land per megawatt for five megawatt that's 25 acres of land. You know 25 acres of land, I did a rough estimation is about 20 football fields. And so that's why the farmers, once again back to your question, farmers have to make a choice, right. And I think there's a role for the farming community, agriculture community to play in combating climate change. But also we argued this is not a zero sum game here, especially if we can explore the dual-use, agrovoltaic options. We are hoping New York can take a leading role in setting a model for the rest of the country to follow in large scale solar deployment, but at the same time preserving agricultural land, or preserving agricultural activities for food security.

Levulis: Now shifting away from the study and even land-based solar for a second here, one community in the Albany area, the city of Cohoes, is considering floating solar panels on its reservoir, potentially leading to a 3 million megawatt array. Could projects like that take the pressure off some of the land-based solar projects?

Zhang: So that's also a very good option. Actually those are already being implemented once again on an individual basis and in Europe and other parts of world. So I think that could be a very good option. In New York we do have a reasonable water body surface. So those can be potentially utilized for solar development and taking the pressure from agricultural activity. Having said that, you know, there are other consequences or impacts that we have to closely follow for this type of implantation.

Levulis: So, from where we stand today, do you think New York will meet its solar goals?

Zhang: I think we will. The current goal right is 6 gigawatts of solar by 2025. That's the specific goal we have at present and we're already halfway there. So like I said, New York is really the frontier. I mean, I'm really, really proud of what the solar industry has accomplished in New York, and I have no doubt that we will achieve our solar goal. But, once again, my point here is at the same time, I'm promoting this low-impact solar development practice. And this is going to be a collaboration between solar developers and community and our governments. So I think that we have tremendous opportunities to do this thing right in the state of New York.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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