Saturday, October 29, 2022

Discussion time: Solar

Site of a proposed solar installation on Veterans Road in Ticonderoga. Photo by Tim Rowland

We ran a story in the Sept/Oct issue of Adirondack Explorer’s magazine (click here to subscribe) that digs into a solar boom in Ticonderoga.

Reporter Tim Rowland writes: “Fueled by New York’s mission to ensure that 70% of its electricity be derived from renewables by 2030 and the corresponding incentives to help that happen, lands with potential for solar became the hottest ticket in Ti.”

Not everyone is on board, however. Some people are asking “how much is enough?” For example, from the story:

Andrea Hogan, the Town of Johnsburg supervisor and an APA commissioner, said she’s watched with some concern as solar farm proposals have popped up “like mushrooms” with little forewarning and little thought as to how they should be regulated.

“A lot of towns don’t have anything in the code, and they’re going to need a lot more information”, she said. Two arrays have been proposed for Johnsburg. She looks to Ticonderoga as a model and as a warning.

“I wholeheartedly support renewable energy, but we haven’t figured out where it all fits.“There’s a philosophical question to be asked, how much is too much?”

The proliferation of projects has also been the subject of a recent “It’s Debatable” column that ran in the magazine and on the Almanack.

Where do you stand on this issue? Weigh in here!

Photo at top: Site of a proposed solar installation on Veterans Road in Ticonderoga. Photo by Tim Rowland

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Melissa is a journalist with experience as a reporter and editor with the Burlington Free Press, Ithaca Journal and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. She worked as a communications specialist for the Adirondack North Country Association and is currently digital editor for Adirondack Explorer, overseeing both the Explorer's website and its community forum the Adirondack Almanack. She enjoys hiking, camping and other outdoors activities, and spending time with her husband, their twin daughters, and rescue animals -- two dogs and two cats.


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21 Responses

  1. Keith says:

    Well… Let me count the ways… these will present massive waste problems in 20-30 years that will overwhelm our current recyclability capacity. To think that these companies will still be in business and will be liable for disposal is very optimistic. Should companies “walk away“ from old projects, the contents of these panels will eventually be washed into the soil and aquifers. Are these panels made by slaves in China?… I don’t know… But that would be nice to find out because I would not feel comfortable turning on a lamp in my house knowing it is being supplied by slave labor. Is the mining for the minerals used in the panels being done in an environmentally safe way?.. again I don’t know… That too would also be helpful information.
    I’m going to put my money on TerraPower. If we are not going to live in caves, this could possibly be our answer for future energy demands.
    https://www.terrapower.com/

  2. Josh says:

    Love to see solar fields. The more the better. Silent, clean, cheap, long-lasting power. And, provides local resiliency to the grid. I’ve been using personal small-scale solar and wind for decades and it makes me smile every time the power goes out and I have lights.

  3. nathan says:

    There should be incentives to put solar farms over parking lots, making use of dead land, shading parking lots kills nothing. Taking up more land for solar panels is a waste of precious living space, Co2 absorbing plants and detrimental to wild life.
    if building in fields, raise solar panels to 7-8 feet up and then it still can be a grassland with animals grazing, plants absorbing co2.
    We cannot grow more land, so maximizing solar over land already destroyed for life, such as Parking lots, south facing sides of buildings, even retaining walls and cut aways along highways. make use of those lands before taking up more viable lands. it just makes more sense for long term enviromental stability.

  4. Daniel Way says:

    We have to keep our priorities straight. Whether we like it or not, everyone and everyplace will have to make sacrifices and maximum efforts if we are to overcome the existential threat of climate change, as long as the plans are feasible and make a significant impact.

  5. Boreas says:

    I would prefer to see them clustered within incorporated villages and towns, where power lines already exist and where the users are. I would also like to see them providing power for low-income housing. I do not like to see large arrays in the countryside unless it is used on-site – as in homes and farms. Commercial arrays should be placed on commercial land zoned as such.

    I also would like to see decommissioning plans and disposal plans before any large sites are permitted, and perhaps bonds to pay for such.

    • AdirondackAl says:

      Solar and wind are very diffuse energy sources. As such, massive land arrays of solar and coastlines lined with wind turbines are necessary to provide the C-free energy necessary replace fossil combustion. It’s basic math. Renewables need to be connected to the grid and tranported large distances to load centers. Lots of power lines. Nuclear plants can complement but not replace renewable energy. Please support large scale renewable energy in your community.

      • Pat Smith says:

        Keep in mind that if a facility is rated at a maximum capacity of let’s say 100 megawatts here in Central NY it will only produce at about 13-15%(13-15 megawatts) of its capacity. That translates to approximately 50-55 acres to generate 1 megawatt. So if we need 10,000 megawatts baseboard you are looking at over 500,000 acres of panels. The days of the small 5-10 megawatt facilities are over. The state knows to reach their pie in the sky solar goals they need huge utility size arrays. In our town we are looking at a 1200+ acre facility. The state has created the Office of Renewable Energy Siting which takes over all oversight of projects over 20 megawatts. Towns have little to no say in the siting process.Huge incentives, which come from taxpayer dollars, are being offered to companies to destroy farmland and wildlife habitat. Why not offer more incentives to homeowners? This isn’t even taking into account the damage done to the environment from all the mining, manufacturing and shipping of panels, which are mainly built overseas. In NY hydro power already produces around 20-30% of our power. The state is actually mandating that solar be sent onto the grid first while existing hydro facilities are forced to cut production. Why not upgrade hydro power, along with nuclear, to meet our energy needs?

    • Pat Smith says:

      The answer our town gets when we question solar developers about disposal/recycling of panels is that because no large facilities have been decommissioned yet they are not sure how the process will work. Right now there is no definite plan for the future on how to handle useless panels. Some panels that maybe functional at a low level can be salvaged and resold. The state, through ORES, will also take over negotiations for decommissioning of facilities over 20 megawatts. It looks like the state estimates the cost of removal less the potential salvage value then issues a Letter of Credit or bond of some type to the town. Personally, I don’t think these funds will nearly be enough in the end and the towns will be stuck trying to finish any restoration.

  6. JB says:

    I thought that Tim Rowland’s article was a thoughtful look at the subject. I hope to see more like it in the future. It’s easy to say “the more solar farms the better” or “we need to act _now_”, but we also need to ask a lot of detailed questions. We wouldn’t be very good land stewards if we didn’t.

    How much land is being developed for utility-scale solar in various parts of the state? It seems that no one is keeping track. How are owners of solar farms managing vegetation? (How common is herbicide use and what herbicides are being used?) Is the state Tier system for incentivizing solar energy producers sensible, sustainable, transparent and fair? What about the state-mandated siting process? What about distributed solar? And where is APA’s guidance on all of the above?

  7. AdirondackAl says:

    Even if all existing buildings are made more energy efficient, new buildings are net-zero, transmission line efficiencies improve, hydro plants are upgraded, geothermal heating and cooling is deployed, battery storage improves dramatically, carbon sequestration of ag soils and forests increase, and a few new nukes are constructed, we’ll still need massive build-out of solar and wind resources. (The mitigation scenario analyses that support this conclusion can be found at https://climate.ny.gov/Our-Climate-Act/Draft-Scoping-Plan.)

    Significant impacts from the large scale renewable deployment may result, including some cost and discomfort to consumers. We thought we had close to a free-lunch combusting fossil fuels until, well, we realized that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. (It required about 200,000 pounds of ancient biomass to make a gallon of gasoline.)

    There will be environmental impacts as well from renewables as no energy sources are completely benign. The rollout of renewables at scale will be imperfect but requires urgency. Unfortunately, the reality is that even if us New Yorkers reach our aggressive GHG goals, the resulting emission reductions will be insignificant globally. The hope is our success will inspire others to follow, and concurrently, NYS will reap economic and social rewards for its residents. There is no guarantee of success, but for me, I find not acting on the issue to be immoral.

    Despite the name, a Clean Energy Economy will also be an extraction economy – requiring steel, copper and many other materials. It makes sense that requirements for recycling and decommissioning of solar panels and wind turbines should be addressed prior to deployment, and that research on finding new materials with the fewer environmental and societal impacts be prioritized. And I assume nearly all will agree that are need to be some limits for deployment–we don’t want to cover Yosemite Valley with solar panels and the High Peaks with wind turbines. But we’ll have to reframe our thinking that some of our favorite views are still beautiful, even if they now include spinning blades or fields of panels.

    If you don’t support NYS’s aggressive greenhouse reduction goals, that’s your perogative, however, if you do, or claim that you do, please support action rather than delay.

    • Pat Smith says:

      The other critical side of this discussion that’s often overlooked is the loss of farmland. It is a fact that sometime around 2050 the population of the world will exceed the capability of our farmland to provide enough food for everyone. What seems like marginal farmland today will become crucial in the not to distant future. Even if we transition to a more plant based diet, we can not afford to waste vast acres of land. We would not have to delay installation on homes, there is huge incentive money being spent on utility size solar. Why not redistribute that much of that money back to NYS residents to place solar arrays on their property?

  8. Josh says:

    There’s a lot of FUD in these responses. Just a couple of rebuttals. If you are worried about recycling solar panels how about decommissioning nuclear power plants? And, nobody knows what to do with the highly dangerous waste that has to be safely stored for thousands of years. Come back to us when someone comes up with a solution that the people who have to live with it agree to. https://oecd-nea.org/jcms/pl_14910/costs-of-decommissioning-nuclear-power-plants?details=true

    Second, there is no “loss” of farmland. In most cases, solar farms are not replacing active farmland, and even if they do the land can readily be transformed back to farmland some day if required. Plus, some see a synergy between solar and farms. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2022/10/solar-energy-farming-agrivoltaics-farmers-crop-yields/

    Whether we like it or not, there is no magic bullet to replace fossil fuels in the short term, so we have to use all available means to get there. Solar is one piece of the puzzle that is growing fast. You can either be part of the solution or part of the problem.

    • JB says:

      While I agree that “solar needs to be part of the puzzle”, I also think that unequivocally trusting the current system (a treacherous mix of free markets and market interventions) to find “the solution” would be a mistake. A robust oversight mechanism, on both local and state levels (to ask questions like “how much is too much?”), is essential, and I don’t think that we have that. Obviously, the same goes for nuclear energy.

      Regarding stockpiled nuclear waste, it seems that incentivizing nuclear energy development would in fact be the best way to prevent accidental release of existing waste, to say nothing of the lengths that that would go towards closing our net-zero energy deficit.

      Finally, the most important aspect of assembling a puzzle is a question of magnitudes. Is it technologically feasible to close, say, a 30% net-zero energy deficit in NY with utility-scale solar? Sure. But the consequences of converting more than 10% of the state’s total land area to solar farms would arguably outweigh the benefits. Now start adding other variables, like energy exports resulting from ill-conceived interventions, to the equation. As we are seeing, solar farms may be quite inefficient in many places, but they scale much more evenly than other renewables — quite possibly, until land “runs out”.

      • Josh says:

        I don’t know where you come up with covering 10% of New York as necessary. I have read estimates that 10-20,000 square miles of solar panels could power the entire country. There are some counties in California, Arizona, and Nevada close to the size needed to power the entire United States. Obviously, that is not going to happen, but I believe New York State alone is around 55,000 square miles. In any case, solar is not the single solution to all of our energy needs, but it is currently one piece of the puzzle that is happening now.

        • JB says:

          Josh, 10% land area (several million acres) for 30% annual demand is a ballpark estimate. Most of the calculations that I have done by extrapolating annual watt-hour generation of existing solar farms in NY (or, if from other places, adjusted for solar irradiance) have been in the range of 5 to 10%. I’m rounding up here because future peak demand will occur during heating season (when solar irradiance and solar generation capacity are lowest), and considering that replacing refined petroleum products and natural gas will at least double NYS current ~150 TWh annual energy demand. If anything 10% would be an underestimate.

          Your 10-20,000 sq mi for the entire country sounds off by an order of magnitude. If this was the case, our energy needs for the nation would be met just by the solar projects planned for the desert southwest states alone. For example, 5,000 sq mi of utility-scale solar is slated for one region in southern California within the next few years. (Incidentally, much on federal lands that are among the most biodiverse on the continent.) For reference, I estimate that NYS has deployed roughly 100,000 acres of utility-scale solar to date, with a generation capacity well below 5% current annual energy demand (if my memory is correct, don’t quote me on that).

          • Josh says:

            Not a fan of Elon Musk, but he does seem to know a lot about electricity, batteries, and solar. In any case, he estimates we would need 10,000 square miles to power the USA. So, let’s say he’s off by a factor of 2. Go for 20,000 square miles and we’re done! https://www.inverse.com/article/34239-how-many-solar-panels-to-power-the-usa.

            • JB says:

              By “order of magnitude”, we usually mean a factor of 10. What we need, again, is a more transparent process. We shouldn’t need to be debating whether Elon Musk’s numbers are accurate. NYS should be providing, in a no-nonsense, publicly digestible format, reliable analyses of exactly how much land is being converted and how much energy generation capacity is being brought online (not just the occasional PR release with boilerplate “MW” numbers). Federal agencies do this relatively well at regular intervals, as do some other states.

              On the bright side, I think that local outlets (emphatically: including this one) are doing their part in filling the void.

    • Pat Smith says:

      I can say with 100% certainty that the projects in my area are definitely being sited on active farmland.

  9. Pat Smith says:

    Along with Mother Jones and Elon Musk you may also want to reference NYISO real time dashboard for up to the minute breakdown of the states baseload and how that demand is met. Also of interest is NYSERDA DER Intergrated Data System/ Performance Data. FYI Barton Mines facility, North Creek (2.7MW rated) has a capacity factor of 11.5% and has never generated more than 770kW.
    Sunvestments Energy facility, Harrietstown (2.1MW rated) has a capacity factor of 12% and has never generated more than 580kW.

  10. Josh says:

    Sure, solar is a small piece at the moment, but growing fast along with other renewables. Companies wouldn’t be building solar farms if they weren’t profitable, would they? They’re not building new nukes because they are too expensive. For-profit companies invest where they see opportunity.

    • Pat Smith says:

      The only way they are profitable is through government subsidies. When a representative from NYSERDA was asked about the development of more wind farms, his answer was that NYSERDA wasn’t anticipating much growth in that sector because subsidies were not as available. Do you think any business can operate at 10-15% efficiency and stay afloat without being proped up financially?

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