Coming to terms with solar energy development

Early stage solar project construction at the at the former village of Malone landfill site. (Photo provided by the village of Malone)

Perhaps the most significant energy question in the North Country in the coming year will be the potential long-term advantages and/or disadvantages of advancing industrial-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) project development in the region. Solar power represents a significant opportunity for economic development and job creation in North Country communities. PV energy production is playing an increasingly important role in how states meet their (renewable) energy needs.

Several northern New York townships have been evaluating the potential for opportunities in the photovoltaic energy production. But solar project development can be controversial and has triggered division among residents. Opposition tends to revolve around three issues; aesthetics, safety concerns, and the potential for negative impacts on real estate values. Aesthetic issues are, essentially, subjective. At around 8 to 12 feet high, solar arrays have a low profile, and landscaping is often used to shield projects from view. Concerned North Country residents want assurance that solar PV projects are sited in ways that minimize the impacts on scenic and natural resources while protecting human and livestock health and the environment. Among the people that I’ve discussed this with, concerns expressed include:

Safety issues

One of the most common safety concerns raised is panel reflection, or glare. Most panels are designed to absorb as much light as possible and reflect as little light as possible. Nonetheless, some level of reflection will always occur. Among residents, the concern is generally that the glare will be an annoyance or cause discomfort. For drivers and aviators, however, glare can be a safety concern and needs to be taken into account.

Concerns over noise are often expressed. Many people are familiar the audible sound created when wind turbine blades are turning. Some people refer to it noise pollution. Unlike wind turbines, solar PV panels have no moving parts. They’re quiet. Any noise issues would most likely be limited to locations in very close proximity to the inverters.

The effects on property values are less clear.

Covering useable farmland with arrays

What seems to concern most residents is the extensiveness of proposed larger-scale industrial solar facilities; the amount of land involved, the change of land use, land degradation, and habitat loss. A proposed 150-megawatt solar farm on roughly 950 acres in the town and village of Malone was met with reservation and, at least among some residents, fierce opposition, even after officials scaled the project down to 50 megawatts along state Route 30, south of the village.

For landowners, PV energy generation can be compelling. But, unlike wind, solar projects do not lend themselves to shared use with agriculture. Farmers considering shifting from harvesting crops and forage to harvesting the sun need to recognize that this is a transition out of farmland and into industrial land. (Solar farm? I don’t think so!) Questions about insurance requirements (e.g. personal injury / liability issues), property tax liability, and the inability to transfer lands into other uses in the future, also need consideration.

What’s more, technology changes rapidly. And, although site removal is relatively inexpensive and used materials currently have relatively high salvage value, over the years, several North American wind and a few solar energy production sites have been abandoned, rather than upgraded, when they became obsolete.

Minimizing environmental impacts

Situating PV gathering and generating equipment on large tracts of land without compromising natural habitats is a challenge. Impacts can be minimized by utilizing lower-quality locations such as landfills, brownfields, or abandoned mining land.

Solar development at the former village of Malone landfill site is an example of just such a project. Consisting of two ground mounted solar arrays comprised of 11,258 solar panels and 58 inverters, the project transformed nine acres of uninhabitable and otherwise unworkable land into a source of clean, renewable, locally generated, community-based electrical power. One array serves the county. One serves the village. And several northern Franklin County townships have expressed interest in purchasing power generated by the project at a discount, from the county.

The village of Massena is considering developing a solar PV generating project on a 150-acre landfill situated on the Alcoa West site, off St. Lawrence county Route 42 in Massena.

There’s a grassroots movement afoot to encourage incorporating pollinator-friendly plantings within commercial-scale, ground-mounted solar arrays. Many of the regions principal crops (e.g. apples, alfalfa, berries, pumpkins, soybeans) rely heavily on pollination. Locating pollinator-friendly plantings within these PV developments, creates easily maintainable habitat for native bees, honeybees, butterflies (e.g. Monarchs), moths, and hummingbirds; many of which are vital to sustainable fruit, vegetable, and forage production and, as such, contribute substantially to our wellbeing and to the economy.