To site or not site solar on farmland: that’s the question facing many states, including New York. “We cannot exchange an energy crisis for a food crisis,” New York State Senator Michelle Hinchey has said. It’s a complicated challenge. Farmland provides typically flat, penetrable ground in areas with a low population density, making it a prime location for solar energy projects, and in New York, there are nearly seven million acres of farmland—but farmland is essential for food production and local rural economies, too.
New York State aims to achieve 100% emissions-free electricity by 2040, and ground-mounted solar offers durable and efficient options for such energy, but it can entail changes to farming communities on large scales, at times. Cider Solar Farm in Elba, for instance, is a 3,000-acre project; overall, the development of solar energy would require around 1% of New York State’s farmland, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. To help achieve a balance, New York has turned to incentives for prompting developers to avoid or mitigate use of agricultural land through the Smart Solar Siting Scorecard, and to the encouragement of dual-use solar, or “agrivoltaics,” which incorporates agricultural and conservation interests into solar projects. For these strategies to work, the state needs to draw from different perspectives, including those of farmers, community members, and clean energy experts.
CBI worked alongside the Agricultural Technical Working Group (A-TWG), an independent advisory body to the state of New York, to find a balance between the energy transition and sustaining agriculture. The A-TWG brings together a diverse set of stakeholders, including farmers, agriculture and land conservation organizations, clean energy advocates, academics, state and local government officials, and industry members. CBI facilitated learning and conversations about issues including dairy farmers’ economic viability, best practices for protecting prime agricultural soils, design and costs of agrivoltaics to meet both farmers’ and developers’ needs, and the cumulative socio-economic implications of solar on farmland across the state.
This work helped lead to the creation and continued refinements of the Smart Solar Siting Scorecard, a tool to evaluate and influence renewable energy projects’ siting decisions through the state’s annual large-scale renewable energy solicitation. Solar projects that avoid farmland or forested land receive a higher ranking, and those that minimize or mitigate their footprint on these resources will also qualify for positive scores. New York offers points to strategies like enhancing soil quality or allowing continued farm operations, signaling the state’s continued commitment to farmland preservation. In short, by convening the affected interests and providing a forum for dialogue, consensus building can help find ways to advance a clean energy transition while protecting important and long-standing industries such as farming.