Growth in solar power sparks a land rush

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SCHODACK – Bill Lanford’s mailbox has been filled with offers and requests for the last year to lease part of his family farm. However, the offers do not come from housing developers.

Instead, they come from alternative energy companies that are trying to secure suitable properties for solar farms.

“I was approached at least a dozen times,” says Lanford, a physics professor at Albany University, who lives on the farm where his dad raised cattle.

“Most of them don’t know much about it,” he said of developers who seem simply to want to close their lease.

He eventually contracted Eden Renewables, a Troy-based developer with experience in building construction projects.

Lanford experiences the latest version of a long American tradition with a high-tech twist. Like the Sooners who raced to settle the best farmland in Oklahoma in the 19th century, and the 49ers who climbed the Sierra Nevada mountains during the gold rush, solar farm builders are racing to get the best spots for their planned projects.

The New York State area is especially attractive to these developers for a number of reasons. The need for green energy is enormous in the densely populated metropolitan area of ​​New York City. Upstate has open spaces for solar farms. The state’s emphasis on 70% green energy by the end of this decade means that there are a number of subsidies for the development of solar energy.

Solar and land lease companies use drones, Google maps, and old-fashioned shoe leather to search for places to build.

But this earth fever has raised questions in some affected communities. “It’s the Wild West,” said Lynne Bruning, a Duanesburg resident who has tried unsuccessfully to challenge or keep a solar farm next to her home.

For some landlords, however, the thrust of the sun has been a blessing to keep their family farms alive.

“This is our most marginal land,” said Ed Johnson, a third-generation farm owner in Easton, Washington. Most of his land is leased to other farmers, but the income from CS Energy’s new Branscomb solar farm is about 20 times more than what he would pay for the arable land.

“That’s a nice stream of income,” added Andrew Squire, who manages a neighborhood farm in Valley Grown and also leases Branscomb.

But not all projects were successful.

Johnson said that three years ago he applied to him for a lease from Monolith Solar, a company that has since gone bankrupt. If he leased them, he might have had legal headaches or difficulty handing over the land to a more solvent firm.

Squire said a lot of people who wanted to lease had approached him as well. “For lack of a better term, there were no wild animals looking for places,” he said.

And while it is a welcome source of income for many farmers and landowners, solar leasing can also reduce the proportion of farmers who rent out land.

In fact, 60 percent of New York City’s agricultural land is leased, notes Elizabeth Wolters, director of public policy at the State Farm Bureau.

“There is something like a perfect storm that creates both an opportunity and a cause for concern,” she said. “There are a lot of scouts and a lot of companies chasing New York.”

A recent study from Cornell University, due to be published this summer, encourages developers to look at low-quality farmland to protect prime farming sites.

In a study by Professor Max Zhang, it was noted that so far 40% of the current capacity of solar energy has been on agricultural land. But 84% of the land identified as suitable for future solar development is also agricultural land.

“Solar farms are already taking up farmland and it will likely take even longer to meet New York City’s energy goals,” said Zhang. “This is no surprise to the solar community. But this is a surprise for the farming community. ” Although farmers like Wolters emphasize that there is a lot of farmland across the state, there is a risk that the concentration of sunny areas in some communities could harm agriculture in these locations.

Zhang believes solar developers should reach out to community involvement early on, rather than blocking leases and then announcing their plans, an approach he describes as decide-announce-arms.

One area of ​​contention is the Hudson Valley, which has both a rich agricultural heritage and is considered a major solar territory due to its proximity to the New York area as well as high-capacity power lines in the area.

Darin Johnson, a resident of Austerlitz, Columbia, agrees with Bruning that there is a “Wild West” scenario where landlords are bombarded with lease offers.

He is involved with Sensible Solar, which challenges some of the achievements. He is also one of the local opponents of the 250-acre 60-megawatt solar farm proposed by Hecate Energy for nearby Copake and Craryville. Opponents believe that it is too big and will hurt the region’s tourism economy.

Even online land exchanges are entering the action. One company, Stella Solar, registered with local businesses saying, “Earn a substantial income by leasing your land to a shared solar garden.”

Stella is affiliated with Real X, an online land lease exchange with offices in West Virginia and West Pennsylvania.

Company officials did not call back, but these locations are close to areas where natural gas hydrofraction has been going on for years. In hydraulic fracturing, drillers use high-pressure fluids to force gas out of fractures deep underground.

More than a decade ago, when drilling rigs looked at the south level of New York, where gas deposits are known, there was a land rush for the lease of fracking.

Farmers in parts of the southern tier have been offered thousands of dollars to rent some of their farms to explore for gas. However, fracking was banned by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, and many of the leases were unfulfilled.

This does not mean that the solar energy boom will crash the way it has for decades in the oil and gas industry.

The development of the solar industry is fully supported by both state and federal policies. Still, a lawyer representing landowners in both gas and solar lease contracts says the solar contracts he has seen are more difficult and stringent than oil and gas contracts.

“None of them were as predatory as solar and wind power leases, which range from 25 to 35 pages,” said Elmira lawyer Christopher Denton.

For example, solar contracts contain confidentiality clauses. In terms of money, solar rental fees range from $ 1,000 to $ 1,200 per acre in the southern region, but vary by location, local energy rates, and proximity to pluggable power lines. Developers, he said, are also competing to dominate the locations closest to the high voltage or three-phase or industrial power lines needed to carry electricity.

In addition, solar developers are looking for more land than they need, believing that not all projects will be approved, financed or built.

“Developers tend to close more properties than what they will build on,” said David Gahl, senior director of Northeast State, Solar Energy Industries Association.

“They’re trying to get the best designs that can cross the finish line,” he said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com 518 454 5758 @RickKarlinTU

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