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Solar sites popping up in unexpected places

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Photo of commercial canopies from SunCommon. Photo contributed

GHENT—What if they could erect a solar farm as a canopy above a parking lot? It would shade the cars; shield pedestrians from rain; use an already disturbed site; and, not displace agricultural lands or, in the view of some, replace a bucolic view with an eyesore. What if a solar array on farmland could also host grazing sheep or a pollinator meadow? With solar infrastructure, the devil, or genius, is often in the details of siting and co-uses.

In December 2022, Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106), now the chair of the Energy Committee, introduced a bill designed “to integrate local community needs with the state’s climate goals” in the siting of solar and other renewable energy projects.

According to Assemblymember Barrett, the “Smart Integrative Tools for Energy Development” (SITED) Act calls for the creation of a mapping tool to aid towns to identify and proactively designate the most suitable sites for renewable energy, as well as outreach and educational programs. The proposed mapping tool is modeled on one that was developed several years ago by the non-profit Scenic Hudson.

The state has set a goal to generate 70% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The solar generation of energy is a key element in meeting that goal.

Scenic Hudson has estimated that to achieve the 2030 goal, the Hudson Valley will need to dedicate 6,300 acres of its 4.68 million acres to large-scale solar development. The state Department of Energy estimates that to achieve the 2050 goal some 180 million solar panels will need to be installed whether in residential, community solar or utility-level projects.

The new goals, especially when coupled with the financial incentives of the Inflation Reduction Act, are prompting a sea change in the industry, with large, “utility” farms as well as mid-sized community solar arrays increasingly being proposed. As many county residents are aware, often the larger projects are sited on scenic farmland, are intended to generate electricity for “Downstate,” and, as such, are highly controversial.

In 2020 the state legislature created the Office of Renewable Energy Siting (ORES) to consider and approve large scale renewable projects. Large-scale means greater than 25 megawatts (MW) in size. In addition, 20 MW project sponsors may opt in to ORES review. The proposed 220-acre Shepherd’s Run project in Copake is an example.

Significantly, as to projects within its jurisdiction, ORES has the authority to override local zoning laws that are “unreasonably burdensome” to the state’s ability to achieve its climate targets. Smaller projects remain within the control of local communities.

In addition to residential solar, such locally-regulated projects include community solar installations, that typically generate 750 kW to 5MW (the latter will power around 800 homes). NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) predicts that community solar will experience the greatest growth in the next several years. For ground-mount projects in this range, the rule of thumb for land use is 5-10 acres/MW.

While Scenic Hudson and others advocate for the development of a regional plan for siting solar projects to allow for land use best practices, Scenic Hudson’s Audrey Friedrichsen also urges communities to consider “smart from the start siting”—proactively planning for where solar infrastructure would be best located.

Scenic Hudson’s publication, “How to Solar Now,” and its online Solar Mapping Tool, for the use of which Scenic Hudson will provide training, are intended to support smart site planning at the local level. Areas of focus include siting solar on the rooftops of existing structures (as many of our towns are doing on their highway department buildings through the Climate Smart program) and, on the ground, in previously-disturbed areas and areas where the land can also be used for other purposes.

Among the co-uses that are increasingly being explored, according to Assemblymember Barrett is “agrivoltaics”—co-locating agricultural and solar uses. One example being tested is bringing sheep to the solar farm to graze underneath the ground-mount system. There is also talk of raising the solar panel mountings to allow for larger animals.

Also under consideration is planting pollinator-attracting plants on the solar farm, to improve the health of bees and other species threatened by habitat loss, thereby also aiding near-by pollinator crops, according to Ms. Friedrichsen.

Finally, solar canopies are cropping up. A solar canopy is a solar installation at a parking lot or similar area that sets the solar panels at a height that allows cars and vans to park beneath it. The canopy (think, a giant carport) shades the cars underneath, diminishes the “heat island” effect of asphalt areas, shields pedestrians from sun, rain and snow, can also power EV charging stations, and uses already-disturbed land.

Parking areas are already spaces highly exposed to sunlight making them attractive, but they may have been built on landfill or other topographies not suited for the deep posts needed to support the canopy. Solar canopies are typically more expensive to construct than other ground-mounted systems.

A 2021 study by Kieren Rudge, then a graduate student at the Yale School of the Environment, of the potential for solar canopies in Connecticut, found that these community solar-sized arrays would be less prone to grid failures, as they are decentralized and would contribute to energy justice (being located near, and to serve, the communities where they sit, making solar available to groups unable to afford their own residential solar and not disturbing more valuable lands).

Locally, a large solar canopy can be found at General Electric in Schenectady, the Town of Croton-on-Hudson is installing one at its Amtrak station, IBM’s Watson facility in Yorktown is constructing a 6.3 mW facility, among others. Area installer SunCommon not only installs commercial canopies but also, uniquely, offers a home post-and-beam style canopy made of redwood to be used for 1-3 vehicles or as a covered patio.

Looking into the (near) future, companies such as Ubiquitous Energy and SolarWindow Technologies are also developing see-through solar panels that will serve as windows for commercial buildings.

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