Growth in solar power sparks a land rush – Times Union

SCHODACK — Bill Lanford’s mailbox for the past year has been filling up with offers and solicitations to lease part of his family farm. The offers don’t come from housing developers though.

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

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

“Most of them don’t know much about it,” he said of the developers who seem simply to want to lock up a lease on the property.

He eventually struck a deal with Eden Renewables, a Troy-based developer with a track record of building projects.

Lanford is experiencing 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 1800s, and the 49ers who scrambled up the mountains of the Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush, builders of solar farms are racing to grab the best spots for their planned projects. 

Upstate New York is especially attractive to these developers for several reasons. The need for green power is immense in the population-dense New York metropolitan area. Upstate has the open spaces for solar farms. And the state’s push for 70 percent green energy by the end of this decade means there is a variety of subsidies for solar development.

Solar companies and land leasing companies are using drones, Google maps and old fashioned shoe leather to ferret out buildable solar spots.

But this land rush has sparked questions in some communities that are being impacted.
 
“It’s the Wild West,” said Lynne Bruning, a Duanesburg resident who tried unsuccessfully to question or halt a solar farm next door to her home.

Still, for some landowners the solar push has been a blessing that will allow them to keep their farms in the family.

“It’s our most marginal land,” said Ed Johnson a third-generation farm owner in Easton, Washington County. Most of his land is leased to other farmers but the income from the new Branscomb solar farm being built by CS Energy pays about 20 times what cropland would pay.

“It’s a nice stream of income,” added Andrew Squire, who operates the area’s Valley Grown farm and is also leasing to Branscomb.

But not all of the projects have gotten off the ground.

Johnson said he was approached about a lease three years ago by Monolith Solar, a company that has since gone into bankruptcy.
 
Had he leased to them, he may have had a legal headaches or difficulty releasing the land to a more solvent firm.

Squire said he was also approached by numerous people who wanted to lease. “There was for lack of a better term, wildcatters looking for sites,” he said.

And while a welcome source of income for many farmers and landowners, leasing for solar also could squeeze some farmers who lease land.

In fact, 60 percent of New York’s farmland is rented, noted Elizabeth Wolters, public policy director for the state Farm Bureau.

“There is kind of the perfect storm setting up both opportunity and cause for alarm,” she said. “There are a lot of scouters out there and there are a lot of companies that are pursuing New York.”

A recent study from Cornell University, to be published this summer, urges developers to look at low quality farmland in order to protect the best spots for agriculture.

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

“Solar farms are already taking up agricultural land and it will likely take even more to achieve New York’s energy goals,” Zhang said. “For the solar-energy community, this is not a surprise. But for the agricultural community, this is a surprise.”
 
While agriculturalists like Wolters stress there is lots of farmland across the state, there is the risk that concentrating solar sites in certain communities could hurt agriculture in those locales.

Zhang believes solar developers should reach out to engage local communities at the very start of their efforts rather than locking up leases and then announcing their plans, an approach he describes as decide-announce-defend.

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

Darin Johnson, a  resident of Austerlitz in Columbia County, agrees with Bruning that there is a “Wild West” scenario in which landowners are being bombarded with offers to lease.

He’s  involved in Sensible Solar, which is questioning some of the developments. He is also among the local opponents of a 60 megawatt 250-acre solar farm proposed by Hecate Energy for nearby Copake and Craryville. Opponents believe it is too big and will hurt the area’s tourist economy.

Online land exchanges are even getting into the act. One firm, Stella Solar, had signs up in local businesses saying “Earn significant income by leasing your land for a community solar garden.”

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

Officials from the company didn’t return calls but those locations are near areas where natural gas hydrofracking has been going on for years. In hydrofracking, drillers use high-pressure liquids to force gas from fissures deep underground.

More than a decade ago as drillers were eyeing New York’s Southern Tier, where there are known gas deposits, there was a land rush for fracking leases.

Farmers in parts of the Southern Tier were being offered thousands of dollars to rent part of their long-struggling farms for gas exploration. But fracking was banned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 and many of the leases were unfulfilled.

That’s not to say that the solar boom will lead to a bust, as has happened over the decades in the oil and gas industry.

Growing the solar industry is fully backed by both state and federal policies.  Even so, a lawyer representing landowners in both gas and solar lease deals, says the solar contracts he has seen are tougher and more stringent than those for oil and gas.

“None were as rapacious as the solar and wind leases, which run 25 to 35 pages,” said Elmira lawyer Christopher Denton.

Solar contracts, for instance, have confidentiality clauses. As for the money, solar lease payments range from $1000 to $1200 per acre in the Southern Tier but vary according to location, local power rates and proximity to connectable power lines. Developers, he said, also are competing against one another for dominance in locales that are closest to high voltage or Three Phase, or industrial power lines needed to carry the electricity. 

Additionally, solar developers look for more land than they need, figuring that not all of the projects will be approved, funded or built.

“Developers typically lock up more property than what they will build on,” said David Gahl, senior director of state affairs for the Northeast at Solar Energy Industries Association.

“They are trying to get the best projects that can get over the finish line,” he said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com 518 454 5758 @RickKarlinTU 

Source: https://www.timesunion.com/business/article/Growth-in-solar-power-sparks-a-land-rush-16157376.php

May 6, 2021 Mary Sparks