Consider the lilies of the field.
State senator Michelle Hinchey recently crafted a bill made into law that does just that when solar arrays encroach on active farmland. The state law protects agricultural land from being repurposed to make way for solar farms. Protecting agricultural land from being permanently repurposed to make way for solar farms is a growing concern.
Because crops and solar panels both require sunlight, competition has intensified between the two for flat, unobstructed land without regard for the arability of the soil, which is vital for farming and of no consequence to solar panels.
State law now decrees a penalty for solar projects that harvest sunlight on land which could instead be used to grow crops and feed people rather than the power grid. Until recently, that penalty money extracted from the solar operations ended up in New York State’s general fund. Under the Hinchey-sponsored bill signed into law by governor Kathy Hochul, that money is now diverted into a newly created farmland protection fund instead.
“I thank governor Hochul for signing my bill to create the Agricultural and Farmland Viability Protection Fund,” said Hinchey, “and look forward to ensuring that we continue to work to create a future centered on locally sourced, healthy food and incentivize smart solar development without eliminating our finite agricultural resources.”
As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee for the past two years, Hinchey got a whole slew of farming-related bills passed into law. Bills supporting the creation of a directory of New York state farms and farm products, a climate resiliency farming initiative, debt forgiveness for new farmers starting out, and support of industrial hemp development were a few.
A number of additional bills have been aimed squarely at the land-use squabble between energy generation and food production. The state’s goal is for 70 percent of its electricity to be renewably generated by 2030.
Statewide incentive programs such as NY SUN and Build-Ready seek to encourage solar projects. Data provided by Nyserda shows that beginning in 2009 a total capacity of 118.3 megawatts have been installed in Ulster County in a total 4432 solar projects.
As New York attempts to move away from gas and oil toward electric power, reliable power supplies for heating in the winter becomes a greater concern. As an example, the load required from a space heater to heat a room pulls thousands more watts over the power grid than does a 60-watt light bulb.
With the average electricity usage of an Ulster County consumer over the course of the entire year averaging around twelve megawatts and the United States Census Bureau estimating over 85,000 homes in Ulster County, it’s safe to total assume usage higher than a million megawatts, even leaving out commercial properties and car-charging stations.
To meet and exceed anticipated demand, one Nyserda solution, the Build-Ready program, pushes large-scale renewable energy projects, and prioritizes the development of existing or abandoned commercial sites, brownfields, landfills and former industrial sites abandoned or otherwise neglected. Incentives from the program have found their way to giving a boost to solar projects looking to build on land which could be farmed.
A bill from senator Hinchey to prohibit Build-Ready sites on agricultural land was vetoed by governor Hochul earlier in the year, so that turf war looks to continue in 2023.
One intriguing solution to take the pressure off arable farmland, building carport roofs with solar panels in parking lots, comes to America from Europe. New York’s vast fields of black asphalt present unobstructed views and level land from which to mount the structures and protect cars from the elements in the bargain. France recently passed legislation requiring all parking lots to be covered in solar panels.
“With the climate crisis changing the face of agriculture as we know it,” said Hinchey, “and rendering top food-producing states, like California unequipped to respond, New York must act now to protect local farmland and ensure a stable food supply for our region.”