Monday, February 18, 2019

Viewpoint: Coming to Terms with Solar Energy Development

Early stage project construction at the at the former village of Malone landfill sitePerhaps the most significant energy question in the North Country in the coming year will be the potential long-term advantages and/or disadvantages of advancing industrial-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) project development in the region.

Solar power represents a significant opportunity for economic development and job creation in North Country communities. And PV energy production is playing an increasingly important role in how states meet their (renewable) energy needs.

Several northern New York townships have been evaluating the potential for opportunities in the photovoltaic (PV) energy production. But solar project development can be controversial and has triggered division among residents. Opposition tends to revolve around three issues; aesthetics, safety concerns, and the potential for negative impacts on real estate values. Aesthetic issues are, essentially, subjective. At around 8-12 feet high, solar arrays have a low profile, and landscaping is often used to shield projects from view. Concerned North Country residents want assurance that solar PV projects are sited in ways that minimize the impacts on scenic and natural resources while protecting human and livestock health and the environment. Among the people that I’ve discussed this with, concerns expressed include:

Safety Issues

One of the most common safety concerns raised is panel reflection, or glare. Most panels are designed to absorb as much light as possible and reflect as little light as possible. Nonetheless, some level of reflection will always occur. Among residents, the concern is generally that the glare will be an annoyance or cause discomfort. For drivers and aviators, however, glare can be a safety concern and needs to be taken into account.

Concerns over noise are often expressed. Many people are familiar the audible sound created when wind turbine blades are turning. Some people refer to it noise pollution. Unlike wind turbines, solar PV panels have no moving parts. They’re quiet. Any noise issues would most likely be limited to locations in very close proximity to the inverters.

The effects on property values are less clear.

Covering Usable Farmland with Arrays

What seems to concern most residents is the extensiveness of proposed larger-scale industrial solar facilities; the amount of land involved, the change of land use, land degradation, and habitat loss. A proposed 150-megawatt solar farm on roughly 950 acres in the town and village of Malone was met with reservation and, at least among some residents, fierce opposition, even after officials scaled the project down to 50 megawatts along state Route 30, south of the village.

For landowners, PV energy generation can be compelling. But, unlike wind, solar projects do not lend themselves to shared use with agriculture. Farmers considering shifting from harvesting crops and forage to harvesting the sun need to recognize that this is a transition out of farmland and into industrial land. (Solar farm? I don’t think so!) Questions about insurance requirements (e.g. personal injury / liability issues), property tax liability, and the inability to transfer lands into other uses in the future, also need consideration.

What’s more, technology changes rapidly. And, although site removal is relatively inexpensive and used materials currently have relatively high salvage value, over the years, several North American wind and a few solar energy production sites have been abandoned, rather than upgraded, when they became obsolete.

Minimizing Environmental Impacts

Situating PV gathering and generating equipment on large tracts of land without compromising natural habitats is a challenge. Impacts can be minimized by utilizing lower-quality locations such as landfills, brownfields, or abandoned mining land.

Solar development at the former village of Malone landfill site is an example of just such a project. Consisting of two ground mounted solar arrays comprised of 11,258 solar panels and 58 inverters, the project transformed nine acres of uninhabitable and otherwise unworkable land into a source of clean, renewable, locally generated, community-based electrical power. One array serves the county. One serves the village. And several northern Franklin County townships have expressed interest in purchasing power generated by the project at a discount, from the county.

The village of Massena is considering developing a solar PV generating project on a 150 acre landfill situated on the Alcoa West site, off St. Lawrence County Route 42, in Massena.

There’s a grassroots movement afoot to encourage incorporating pollinator-friendly plantings within commercial-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays. Many of the region’s principal crops (e.g. apples, alfalfa, berries, pumpkins, soybeans) rely heavily on pollination. Locating pollinator-friendly plantings within these PV developments, creates easily maintainable habitat for native bees, honeybees, butterflies (e.g. Monarchs), moths, and hummingbirds; many of which are vital to sustainable fruit, vegetable, and forage production and, as such, contribute substantially to our well-being and to the economy.

Photo of Early stage project construction at the at the former village of Malone landfill site provided.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.




12 Responses

  1. Jacob says:

    Thank you for your article, however, I feel your article misses an important point in these discussions…

    Cui Bono (who benefits)?

    Many landowners and farmers are being inundated with requests and offers from developers who are from out of state and out of country. The lucrative state benefits in NY State make investment in solar somewhat more profitable than other states. If we are sending the profits and the benefits elsewhere instead of retaining them here in our region is there really a benefit to our communities? Community benefit and local ownership should be a key piece of every array considered for construction in our region.

  2. […] Viewpoint: Coming to Terms with Solar Energy Development –  Adirondack Almanack […]

  3. Boreas says:

    Interesting stuff. I am personally not a big fan of large-scale wind power because of wildlife issues, so I hope solar can be developed with minimal environmental impact. Capped landfills and mines seem like reasonable areas for municipal arrays. Large, offshore arrays are being developed in many parts of the world which keep valuable farmland productive. Another possibility would be larger military bases and with unused land and transportation corridors. Some countries are even trying to develop “wireless” transmission from arrays placed in space. N. Tesla would be proud!

  4. Keith Eisenman says:

    Many solar farms are going up on marginal quality farm land, and taking them out of agricultural use for the life of the solar panel would only serve to improve the soil quality. Additionally, a quick Google search yields examples of other places where the land can be simultaneously used to house “free-range” poultry.

  5. Peter Brownsey says:

    What is the lifespan of a solar panel? How do you dispose of old used solar panels? Where are solar panels made and what is the cost? Solar power requires DC batteries and inverters to provide AC current to the home. How dependable is this system? Solar power is not free power and you would need a backup generator and another heating source. Is this why the taxpayers subsidize solar power?

    • Jesse B says:

      Peter your point on the lifespan of solar is a good one. Their lifespan is ~20-25 years and they degrade ~1% efficiency per year, so eventual replacement and disposal is a consideration.

      In regards to your second comments, solar farms and large arrays produce power that goes directly into the existing grid infrastructure to be redistributed. There is no individual storage. Each solar farm (or roof) acts as a mini-power plant, where they contribute to the grid, the same as a traditional power plant. Existing power plants are still functioning to maintain a stable flow of energy.

      • Peter Brownsey says:

        Jesse, I was thinking individual off the grid solar power. You are thinking of large commercial solar farms tied to the grid. I have seen these and they take a lot of land. The utility provides the 60 cycles and backup power for the part of the day the sun does not shine just like wind power requires a backup power source for ways with no wind, usually the hottest and coldest days of the year.

  6. Brian Joseph says:

    Other reasons to oppose include high cost, and poor efficiency.

  7. Tim says:

    Doesn’t most of the north country electric come from hydro anyway, i.e., a sustainable, green source?

    • Paul says:

      I wish it did but I don’t think that is probably the case. Many local dams that have produced power in the past are being phased out. Environmentalists are pretty much opposed to this clean source of power. Canada eats it up! France has met their goals for the Paris accords already thanks to nuclear power. We are shuttering or regulating that out here in the US. Too bad. It’s totally compatible with the grid we already have and the fastest way to lower carbon into the atmosphere.

      These solar farms are fine, but way too little too late.

      • Boreas says:

        Paul,

        I agree. I think modern, small-scale nuke plants similar to European models will likely be the most realistic player for the foreseeable future. I think hydro could be a factor as well. One reason hydro went out of favor was the 19th century large dam worship. On larger rivers, large dams may not even be necessary for generation with more efficient turbines and generators. Even if dams need to be built for some areas, they can certainly be built with a more environmental-friendly designs. But 60 years ago, nukes were the answer to our future energy demands so hydro research and technology took a back seat, and began to deteriorate. While I don’t think I would be a fan of new dams within the Blue Line, NYS certainly has a lot more flowing water elsewhere. Offshore current / tide generation would be another consideration. Producing power close to where it is most needed seems to make the most sense.

  8. oldadiron says:

    A few things to consider, the state uses at times 30,000 MW

    That is 30,000 X 1,000,000 or 30,000,000,000 watts of power.

    This “large scale” produces 150 MW.

    For a home it is possible to go off grid with backup generator.

    In order to power just the NYC subway you would need a solar farm 4 times the size of central park. To power NYC all of long island would need solar arrays and wind turbines.

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