As solar farms rise, park towns weigh clean energy, views
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park isn’t widely known for farming, but almost 104,000 of its 6 million acres are in agricultural districts. Much of that is in the Champlain Valley, where sunny fields spread out between dark mountains to the west and sparkling Lake Champlain waters to the east.
In that expanse, solar panels are fast becoming the trendy new cash crop. Because of their potential to change the region’s views, its wildlife habitat and its way of life, some in the communities and on the Adirondack Park Agency’s board are calling for comprehensive planning on their location.
George Pataki, the 53rd governor of New York, lives in Essex, on Lake Champlain. He runs a farm, its fields producing mostly hay for cows. He is also an attorney for Norton Rose Fulbright, specializing in renewable energy and environmental law.
The Republican is a proponent of wind and solar power. It’s the future, he said, not just for the United States but for the world.
Its broad deployment in protected natural areas, however, is something he can’t support.
“It is utterly inappropriate in the Adirondack Park,” he said.
“Infuriated” by the topic, Pataki drove a reporter to a business with one large solar panel in a field nearby. He pointed to the panel’s underside, describing how ugly he thought it was. He grimaced at the thought of the whole field taken up by the panels and wires, something that is already happening in fields and near wetlands in the Adirondacks.
“I think it is a real threat to the wilderness nature that I always brag about to my friends,” Pataki said. “I don’t want to be driving by a 70-acre field full of solar panels when I’m bragging about the wild nature of the Adirondack Park. And it’s not just about bragging. I think it’s the consequences to the wild nature of the park, and I think they’re all negative. Period.”
Farm fields are not wilderness, but many worry about the fate of the agriculture that persists in the park. Some solar proposals go beyond the fields and require tree cutting. Others, such as a 20-megawatt solar facility to be built on a former Adirondack mine, have received little to no criticism and instead garner praise from groups across the park.
Knocking on the door
The hodgepodge of project locations so far approved in the park has given some local leaders pause. The state and federal push for more renewable energy has solar developers knocking on Adirondackers’ doors, but some are wondering if large solar projects belong in the park and, if so, where.
Even stalwart environmentalists are unsure.
Bill McKibben, leader of the climate campaign group 350.org and an Adirondack devotee, called questions about whether large solar projects belong in the park “fascinating.” In an email, he said he had not “given it huge thought.”
“At first glance it doesn’t seem like the ideal place for a solar hub, given distance from large-scale consumption, weather, heavy tree cover,” McKibben said.
Leroy Walston Jr. had a similar impression. Walston is an ecologist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. He and his colleagues work with the U.S. Department of Energy, focusing on reducing environmental barriers for solar development. That includes making fields of solar panels look better to those with more critical eyes.
“We wouldn’t really want to advocate for the placement of these facilities in areas that have ecological or environmental value in and of themselves,” Walston said. “We advocate (using) disturbed, marginal lands first.”
A 6-million-acre view
Though Pataki is wholly against fields of solar panels in the park, he criticized the agency charged with overseeing public and private development for its lack of strategy and long-range planning for solar.
“They should have a vision of what they’re looking to do as opposed to just letting developers come in willy-nilly and do it by a project-by-project basis,” Pataki said of the Adirondack Park Agency.
The agency did make an attempt at adopting a renewable energy policy in 2018. A draft released for public comment said it would consider natural, historic and aesthetic resources. But the APA dropped that effort in the spring of 2019, telling the Adirondack Explorer that “the policy updates were not needed to meet our goal to integrate the wise use of renewable energy resources and implementation of energy conservation measures to help contribute to the reduction of global atmospheric carbon levels and climate change.”
It appears, however, that current APA board members want to revisit the issue, at least for solar.
APA staffers showed a map of approved and proposed projects during a May meeting. The agency had approved two 5-megawatt solar projects and had more than a dozen in the application or pre-application stage. In all, 39% were in farm fields and 56% were in wooded areas.
At that same meeting, the board approved a 5-megawatt solar project in the Town of Moriah to go up on farm fields. The plan also involved cutting about 15 acres of trees. Board member Art Lussi noted the project would have “a tremendous impact on a pretty area of land.” Later in the meeting, Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said he found it “disturbing” that the APA did not take as much time to consider the visual impacts of solar projects as it has done for cellular communication towers.
“I understand we need as a world, not just as a region or a country, we need these projects,” Delaney said. “But we should not look at it with a different eye.”
At a July meeting, board member Zoe Smith asked if the staff was looking at the cumulative effects of solar projects. Rob Lore, deputy director of regulatory programs at the APA, said staff are following individual projects “because that’s what we have control of.”
A 2-megawatt community solar project in the Adirondacks went up in Saranac Lake earlier this year—something that was not initially on the APA’s radar. The project was built on 10 acres on the edge of the village, where the APA encourages development and has fewer regulations. The APA had no jurisdiction.
In Lore’s list of applications, the largest proposed solar project so far is 20 megawatts on 100 acres in Ticonderoga. He mentioned another proposal for 5 megawatts in Johnsburg, which would involve some tree clearing on about 19 acres.
APA Executive Director Terry Martino said the staff could continue updating the agency’s map of solar projects, in response to Smith’s concerns. Board member Andrea Hogan said the board worried about the loss of farmland and effects on wildlife, as well as views.
APA’s legal counsel interjected at times to remind board members that the agency approved permits on a project-by-project basis. By the end of the meeting, board member Mark Hall brought the matter front and center.
“We were created in ’71 by the (state) Legislature to develop long-range land use plans for both public and private lands,” Hall said. “As an agency we need to start looking forward to do that long-range planning that we’re charged to do.”
Tug Hill sun
The agency’s neighbors to the west, at the Tug Hill Commission, have already taken this step. The commission is a nonregulatory state agency whose mission is “helping local governments and citizens shape the future of the Tug Hill region.”
In 2019 the state passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, calling for New York to be on carbon-free energy by 2040 and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 85% by 2050. In the same year, the Tug Hill Commission surveyed residents and landowners about solar energy.
Of the 1,000 respondents, 70% said solar projects should increase in the region while 4% said they should decrease. The rest of respondents were generally fine with the existing solar projects but did not want more in the region, or were unsure.
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The commission worked with local partners and consulted a solar mapping tool created by the nonprofit Scenic Hudson, and reviewed guidance provided by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
The commission identified desirable areas of large solar projects, with criteria including minimal forests and wetlands and a distance of less than 3 miles to a power substation.
The review suggested ways towns could prepare for the coming wave of solar power, including by issuing moratoria on solar development while they upgrade siting and zoning laws and revisiting town comprehensive plans.
The APA has assisted nearly a dozen Adirondack municipalities with reviewing zoning and planning laws for solar. Many towns are finding their zoning and comprehensive plans are behind the times.
Towns take the lead
In the spring of 2020 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Warrensburg Supervisor Kevin Geraghty reviewed a solar proposal from Cipriani Energy Group. The Colonie-based developer wanted to cut about 17 acres of trees near Blister Hill, a former ski area at the base of Hackensack Mountain. The project would have also involved moving part of the mountain’s trail system farther east, Geraghty said. It was proposed on town-owned property, and Geraghty was primarily interested in the revenue it could generate. Over about 25 years, he said, the town stood to receive about $900,000.
The town board hadn’t heard much objection to it at first, but then, Geraghty reasoned that the pandemic was also on people’s minds. As the proposal progressed, residents came out—completely against it.
“People say, ‘OK, we like solar, but not here,’” Geraghty said. “We listened. … It stirred up the pot here from February till May. I feel as a leader, you know, we made the right decision.”
Cipriani Energy Group did not respond to the Adirondack Explorer’s request for comment.
Now Geraghty and the town board are looking to designate the Blister Hill area as parkland so it will be protected from certain developments, such as solar.
About 40 miles north, the town of Ticonderoga has also grappled with an influx of solar proposals. It is the site of the first APA-approved solar project, and the site of many upcoming APA reviews.
Supervisor Joseph Giordano said as proposals were rolling in, the town’s comprehensive plan’s zoning and siting laws dated back to the 1970s and ’80s, before anyone considered solar developments. He and the Town Board worked to update the regulations, and passed a new zoning law in 2019.
The town focused on protecting views and planning for when solar projects are decommissioned. The regulations require that the developer must put up a bond to pay for removal when the solar panels become outdated. The town also requires vegetation screening to help maintain views.
So far, Giordano said, residents have appeared satisfied with the regulations. But he worries about loss of farmland, and he would like to see the APA or the state assist with a feasibility study for the Adirondacks.
“It’s here,” Giordano said of larger solar projects. “It’s good, but to what extent is the question, how far?”
Protecting farms and wildlands
One of the approved projects in the Champlain Valley is on a site many would consider ideal for solar—an empty industrial park. Another one that is moving through the process is on farm fields, but the soil is contaminated.
Those projects don’t concern Carly Summers. It’s the ones being sited on prime farmland that bother Summers, an agricultural support official with the Cornell Cooperative Extension for Essex County. The Moriah project that the APA approved, for example, was on good agricultural soils.
It’s a growing problem across the state. The majority of today’s farmers, Summers said, are approaching retirement age and many of them don’t have a succession plan. She called it a “perfect storm,” where some farmers don’t know how they will retire so they look for reliable income through a solar check.
According to the Tug Hill Commission’s research, landowners generally lease to farmers for $45 to $120 an acre. Solar developers, meanwhile, might pay between $700 and $1,000 an acre.
Summers said municipalities should support land trusts more so that farmers might sell the development rights to their land. The resulting conservation easements, Summers believes, are a better answer to saving good farmland soils and providing some income to retiring farmers.
The Lewis County Industrial Development Authority has taken its own path to protect farmland. It created standard payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements for solar projects, but the developer’s rate is better when they choose sites with lower-quality soils.
Cheyenne Steria, director of finance and incentives, said the IDA was first seeing an influx of wind projects, and negotiating each project one at a time. Then solar proposals started piling up.
“We wanted to get a step ahead,” Steria said. “We have a lot of farmland. We don’t want it all covered in solar panels. Let’s at least understand how much of it is on big enough lots and near enough of the correct infrastructure.”
The authority and the Lewis County Soil and Water Conservation District mapped the county’s prime farmland by soil types. “Then we came up with this crazy idea that we would give better incentives to projects that were on more marginal land,” Steria said. “The solar companies, they like that there is a standard, that there is something they can reference.”
Steria said she had expected pushback from landowners, but so far the policy appears to be a good balance.
Balance is what the Argonne National Laboratory aims to achieve for solar projects. Walston said all over the country people have the same concerns as in the Adirondacks—worries about farmland preservation, viewsheds and wildlife corridors.
It’s all about proper siting of these projects, Walston said. Once a project is in place, Walston and his colleagues look at how else the site can be enhanced. He suggests planting pollinator habitats, buffering a solar panel field with trees, or adding livestock, like sheep, to naturally cut the grass. Developers can also install special fencing that allows smaller wildlife through.
One way or another, he said, “there’s going to be a lot more solar coming.” By 2050, the country will likely be covered in about 10 million acres of solar panels, he added, “which is one reason why we’re so involved in this. We want to make sure it’s not going to be just 10 million acres of panels, but 10 million acres of panels and something else—panels and agriculture, panels and livestock grazing.”
A price worth paying?
McKibben added that wind energy appeared to be a more likely source of renewable energy in the Adirondacks. He shared a 2005 op-ed published in the New York Times, in which he advocated for 10 wind turbines proposed for installation in Johnsburg. The turbines, which never did go up, would have been visible from Gore Mountain and the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, to name a few iconic Adirondack places.
“These newer, more efficient turbines are enormous; part of me doesn’t want to gaze out from the summit of Peaked Mountain or the marsh at Thirteenth Lake and see an industrial project in the distance,” McKibben wrote. “In the best of all possible worlds, we’d do without them. But it’s not the best of all possible worlds.”
Global warming is threatening the very wilderness that McKibben and other park advocates value. In some cases, he suggested, a tainted view is “the price worth paying.”
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This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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