Bill Lanford’s letterbox over the past year was filled with offers and requests to lease part of his family farm. However, the offers do not come from home developers.
Instead, they come from alternative energy companies who are doing their best to obtain suitable solar farm properties.
“I’ve been approached at least a dozen times,” said Lanford, a professor of physics at the University of Albany who lives on the farm where his father raised cattle.
“Most of them don’t know much about it,” he said of the developers who seem to just want to get a lease on the property.
He eventually struck a deal with Eden Renewables, a Troy-based developer with a track record of construction projects.
Lanford experiences the latest version of a long American tradition with a high-tech twist. Like the Sooners who raced to establish 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 race to secure the best spots for their planned projects.
Upstate New York is particularly attractive to these developers for several reasons. The need for green power is enormous in the populated metropolitan area of New York. Upstate has the open spaces for solar parks. And the state’s commitment to 70 percent green energy by the end of this decade means there are a variety of subsidies for solar energy development.
Solar companies and land leasing companies use drones, Google maps and old-fashioned shoe leather to find buildable sunspots.
But this land fever has raised questions in some communities that are being affected. “It’s the Wild West,” said Lynne Bruning, a Duanesburg resident who tried unsuccessfully to question or stop a solar farm next to her home.
Still, the solar energy has been a boon to some landowners allowing them to keep their farms in the family.
“It’s our most marginal land,” said Ed Johnson, owner of a third-generation farm in Easton, Washington County. Most of its land is leased to other farmers, but the income from the new Branscomb solar park being built by CS Energy pays about 20 times what arable land would pay.
“It’s a nice stream of income,” added Andrew Squire, who operates the Valley Grown farm in the area and also leases it to Branscomb.
But not all projects have got off the ground.
Johnson said he was approached three years ago about a lease by Monolith Solar, a company that has since gone bankrupt. Had he rented to them, he might have had legal trouble or struggled to release the land to a more solvent firm.
Squire said he was also approached by numerous people who wanted to lease. “For lack of a better term, there were wildcatters looking for sites,” he said.
And while it is a welcome source of income for many farmers and landowners, solar leasing can also put pressure on some farmers who lease land.
In fact, 60 percent of New York’s farmland is rented, said Elizabeth Wolters, director of public policy at the State Farm Bureau.
“There is a kind of perfect storm that offers both opportunity and cause for concern,” she said. “There are many scouters and many companies pursuing New York.”
A recent study from Cornell University, due to be published this summer, is urging developers to look at low-quality farmland to protect the best places for farming.
Professor Max Zhang’s research shows that so far 40% of the current solar energy capacity is on agricultural land. But 84% of the land identified as suitable for future solar energy development is also agricultural land.
“Solar farms are already taking up agricultural land and more will likely be needed to reach New York’s energy targets,” Zhang said. “This is no surprise to the solar energy community. But this is a surprise to the farming community. “While farmers like Wolters emphasize that there is a lot of farmland in the state, there is a risk that concentrating solar farms in certain communities could harm agriculture in those places.
Zhang believes solar energy developers should reach out to local communities at the outset of their efforts, rather than closing leases and then announcing their plans, an approach he describes as decide-announce-defend.
One of the points of contention is the Hudson Valley, which has both a rich agricultural heritage and is considered the premier sun territory due to its proximity to the New York City area and the area’s high-power lines.
Darin Johnson, a resident of Austerlitz in Columbia County, agrees with Bruning that this is a “Wild West” scenario where landowners are bombarded with offers to lease.
He is involved with Sensible Solar, which questions some of the developments. He is also one of the local opponents of a 250-acre 60-megawatt solar farm proposed by Hecate Energy for nearby Copake and Craryville. Opponents argue that it is too big and will hurt the area’s tourism economy.
Online ground exchanges are even springing into action. One company, Stella Solar, signed up with local businesses and said, “Make a significant income by leasing your land for a communal solar garden.”
Stella is affiliated with Real X, an online land exchange exchange with offices in West Virginia and West Pennsylvania.
Company officials have not called back, but those locations are near areas where natural gas hydrofracking has been taking place for years. In hydrofracking, drilling machines use high-pressure fluids to push gas out of deep underground crevices.
More than a decade ago, when drills looked at New York’s southern tier, where known gas supplies are, there was a big rush for fracking leases.
Farmers in parts of the southern tier were offered thousands of dollars to rent some of their long-struggling farms for gas exploration. But fracking was banned by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, and many of the leases were not fulfilled.
That is not to say that the rise of solar will lead to failure, as has happened in the oil and gas industry in recent decades.
But solar power developers are looking for more land than they need, assuming not all projects will be approved, funded, or built.
“Developers typically lock up more properties than they will build on,” said David Gahl senior director of state affairs for the Northeast at Solar Energy Industries Association.
“They’re trying to get the best projects that can get to the finish line,” he said.
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