WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – Hundreds of proposals for solar power developments are flooding into the state, offering the promise of an economic lifeline for struggling farmers and a dilemma for New York towns clinging tightly to their agricultural past.
Farmers are being offered $1,000 to $3,000 per acre annually to lease land to solar companies answering Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call to have the state rely more and more on renewables for its energy needs.
The sun rush has led some towns to freeze further solar developments until they can plot a land-use strategy. And last month the state enacted new rules after it was discovered companies were filing applications for projects without first getting a landowner’s consent.
“We’re all very concerned about the predatory nature of some of these leases,” said Manna Jo Greene, the environmental director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and a legislator in Ulster County, where a number of solar farm proposals are pending. “We’re concerned about the local economy and want to be sure our local solar developers have a fair opportunity to develop their projects.”
In this latest skirmish over the state’s energy future are echoes from just a few years ago when natural gas companies sought to lease farmland to drill for shale gas, a process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Those efforts foundered amid vigorous opposition from environmental groups and eventually a Cuomo-backed state ban on fracking.
An environmental darling
This time around, solar energy, a darling of the environmental community, is at the center of the discussion. Environmentalists have been pushing the state to wean itself off fossil fuels and nuclear power.
They’re eager to make solar power widely available to homeowners who can’t afford to put solar panels on their roofs. Community solar programs like those being proposed come with the potential to link thousands of homeowners to a shared source of solar power.
“It makes it possible for everyone to have access to renewables,” said Jen Metzger, the co-director of Citizens for Local Power, an Ulster County group dedicated to fighting climate change and promoting locally based green energy economies. “We want to see it take off. But we’re concerned that it could adversely affect some communities.”
Metzger and others fear productive agricultural land could be lost to fields of solar panels. They say towns should consider constructing these solar arrays in landfills, shopping centers with flat roofs or brownfield sites.
All this comes as the owners of New York’s 35,500 farms contend with low prices for milk and other commodities, coupled with rising labor costs. Farm production in New York dropped by $1 billion in 2015, according to figures recently released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“Certainly there is an opportunity for them to make extra money,” said Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau. “That can be a lifeline for farmers who are especially hurting.”
The farm bureau has been busy educating its members about the tax implications for signing a lease with a solar company. They’ve warned them they could face a so-called “conversion penalty” for turning agricultural land over to energy use.
“The solar companies have been very aggressive, Ammerman said. “But there are a lot of things farmers need to think about before signing a lease.
Battle of Saratoga redux
After the Battle of Saratoga, legend has it American troops camped out in a Saugerties hayfield and celebrated a victory historians would declare a pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War.
“Victory in 1777,” reads the sign at the corner of School Road and Old Kings Highway. “Tradition tells that troops from the Battle of Saratoga were greeted here, feasted and escorted down the road by joyous townspeople.”
A few steps away, there’s a modern-day skirmish of a different sort playing out amid rolling fields dotted with hay wagons that hint at farming’s enduring history in this Ulster County town amid the Catskill Mountains.
There, Cypress Creek Renewables of Santa Monica, Calif., one of the nation’s biggest solar companies, wants to build a $4.3 million array of solar panels on 24 acres of farmland, big enough to generate power for 500 homes.
And it’s found an opponent in Clay Trumpbour. Trumpbour, 50, lives across the street from the proposed solar farm on property deeded to his German ancestors nine generations ago as a reward for siding with the Americans in the Revolution.
For decades, Trumpbour, like his father before him, harvested hay on these fields that he sold at New York City racetracks and hunted deer on its backfields. As a kid, he scooped up arrowheads in fields down by the creek beyond these fields. The house he lives in now is a converted stagecoach stop.
“The area hasn’t changed,” Trumpbour said, looking out at the field where solar panels are planned. “There were a few new houses built in the ‘50s and ‘60s but other than that it’s the way it was. You can still walk out and think you’re looking out in the 1700s.”
While he counts himself a fan of solar energy, he doesn’t want to destroy the bucolic nature of a place with a firm grip on its past.
Hitting the brakes
Several towns in the Hudson Valley, fearing the loss of productive agricultural land, are starting to hit the brakes on solar developments by enacting moratoriums until they can develop a land-use strategy.
Attorney Steven Mogel, who represents landowners in Sullivan County, said he saw a surge in activity last year as farmers received solicitations in the mail from solar companies. But, Mogel said, things have slowed down this year as towns have stepped in.
“They’re putting these moratoriums in place so they’re able to craft zoning laws,” Mogel said.
And last month the state was forced to intercede after receiving complaints that a surge in applications was being fueled by companies submitting proposals for projects without first getting a landowner’s consent.
Between April and December, the state received applications for more than 2,000 projects in sizes that ranged from 50 kilowatts to 2 megawatts, according to the Public Service Commission.
Companies with pending applications now have until March 8 to show proof of owner’s consent or they will be taken out of the queue of projects.
“This change should eliminate conflicts where two or more developers have filed applications seeking to interconnect projects on the same site,” PSC Chairman Audrey Zibelman said in announcing the change last month.
The state’s Reforming the Energy Vision, backed by a $5 billion investment in clean energy technology, has led to 730% growth in the state’s solar market, state officials say.
California company moves in
Among the biggest players looking to build in New York is Cypress Creek.
Cypress Creek’s focus is community solar projects like the one in Saugerties as well as “utility-scale” projects that feed electricity onto the state’s electric grid. They says they’ve completed projects generating 1,000 megawatts of power in 15 states.
In New York, Cypress Creek boasts a pipeline of 2000 megawatts’ worth of projects across and hopes to invest some $1 billion over the next two years.
“It’s a market we think is just starting to get going in terms of rapid expansion of solar and we’re excited to be a part of that,” said Noah Hyte, who leads new market development for Cypress Creek. “It’s a place where we expect to develop, build and own assets and be active in doing so for decades to come.”
For now, Cypress Creek is focused on projects that will serve hundreds of homes from solar arrays built near users, Hyte said. Larger so-called “utility-scale” sized projects that produce 100 megawatts or more will likely require upgrades to the state’s transmission system.
“Over the long term the state will have to work on strategically building out their transmission structure, whether that’s increasing the capacity of the existing ones or new ones,” Hyte said.
Cypress Creek’s project is developing across from Trumpbour’s property, which would cover more than 20 acres. The company has the support of the landowner, David Smith.
Trumpbour spoke out against the plan at a Saugerties planning board meeting in January. Among his concerns were the number of sinkholes on the property.
“This field is loaded with sinkholes,” Trumpbour said. “There’s a dozen just in this field. This whole field floods right up to road level, once a year, sometimes twice. If they put it on a backfield nobody would ever see it. It would all be hid.”
His concerns prompted Cypress Creek to re-draw its plans.
“We have increased setbacks from Old King’s Highway and particularly the field that the neighbors, Mr. Trumpbour included, really want to keep open,” Cypress Creek spokesman Jeff McKay said. “The interior fields are being used now, which are largely away from homes …This was actually of great importance to Mr. Smith, the landowner, who did not want to cause issues with his neighbors, but of course still wants to be able to use his land in a way that the law allows.”
Trumpbour hasn’t seen the new plans yet. Cypress Creek is expected to share the new look with planning board members in the coming days. “I look forward to seeing it,” Trumpbour said.
For Cypress Creek’s Anne Waling, who’s overseeing the Smith farm project, Trumpbour’s concerns are part of the push-and-full of developing solar projects.
“We don’t really know when we walk into a town exactly how amenable people are going to be to any particular project and all that we can do is show them our plans and then listen to their concerns and try to frame our plans so that it matches up,” Waling said.
One solution might be a row of hedges that would hide the view of a field stocked with solar panels, she added.
“Granted we can’t make the panels invisible but most people do understand that whether they have solar panels on their own homes or not there are many people who can’t afford to have solar panels on their homes,” she said. “We can provide clean energy for those people who maybe can’t spend $40,000 to put solar panels on their roofs but maybe want to get clean energy.”