On Long Island, NY a battle between open space preservation and solar energy has come to a head over a plan to construct a 9.5-megawatt solar array on a 60-acre sod farm by a residential neighborhood in the Suffolk County town of Brookhaven.
The proposal to set up 50,000 solar panels on the vast, open grounds of DeLalio Sod Farms in Shoreham, an unincorporated village within the town Brookhaven, was approved unanimously by the town planning board in October. The following month, a group of Shoreham residents filed a lawsuit claiming that the project lacks proper environmental reviews and that it would affect their property value and maybe even pose a health risk. The suit — against the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), PSEG Long Island (the region’s power utility), Brookhaven Town and sPower, the private developer of a solar array — is forcing local governments to take a hard look at solar energy policies.
Photo by CGP Grey
As solar power continues to expand in the United States large solar farms have been popping up across the country. While the expansion of renewable energy is undoubtedly a good thing for the nation’s energy portfolio, the solar farms are becoming a source of conflict between local residents and solar advocates. This is especially true in areas with high population density like Long Island where open space is limited.
In the past few years, more than 50 solar energy farms, totaling 50 megawatts of power, have been approved on Long Island as part of the "feed-in tariff" solar initiative, and scores more are in the pipeline, according to PSEG Long Island, which is administering the program along with LIPA. Another round of 76 projects, totaling 100 megawatts, might be in the works soon.
While some of these projects include arrays on the tops of commercial buildings and on industrial land this rush of new solar farms in the area is posing a new and unexpected threat to the island’s remaining open spaces.
Since the end of World War II suburban sprawl has expanded further and further east on Long Island. The Long Island Index, which aggregates data, predicts that by 2016 the island will have less than 10 percent of the open space it has right now. This is particularly alarming because open space is vital for the protection of groundwater, which provides all of the island’s drinking water. Open space is also essential for maintaining the farming and tourism industries, providing habitat for wildlife, and preserving what is left of Long Island’s bucolic landscapes.
In Suffolk County, LIPA is pursuing 11 other solar projects including an even larger, 25-megawatt solar farm in Shoreham, neighboring the sod farm project. In both these cases the location of the solar farms would be adjacent to a residential neighborhood.
Shoreham residents say the process of approving these projects has been less than transparent. They say they learned about the solar project on DeLalio Sod Farms in September, after much of the approval process had taken place and only months before construction work was slated to begin.
Frederick Eisenbud, the attorney representing the opponents, said in an interview with Newsday that the solar farm would be "an assault on the character of the community."
Currently there is only one large-scale solar array operating on Long Island, the 32-megawatt Long Island Solar Farm at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which was built in 2011 and required the clearing of 195 acres of forested land.
Proponents in that case argued that the benefits of the solar farm outweighed the loss of open space due to research opportunities and its production of renewable energy. According to the California Solar Energy Collaborative, solar panels are 10 to 20 percent more efficient than trees in removing carbon from the atmosphere simply by displacing fossil fuel use.
Opponents of large-scale solar farms argue that it is unnecessary to build solar arrays on open space and farmland as they could easily be built on rooftops in commercial and industrial areas as well as on brownfields. According to the nonprofit advocacy organization Sustainable Long Island there are over 6,000 brownfields sitting idle on the island.
“The argument that the carbon footprint is reduced greater by solar than by the sequestration contributed to trees is a false choice — you want both,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a nonprofit which works to protect drinking water and open space. “The benefits of trees are not merely carbon sequestration.”
Amper is also critical of the current site selection process. He believes that site selection for solar farms is important for maintaining and fostering community goodwill for renewable energy. By choosing locations next to, or in, residential neighborhoods, such as the Shoreham sod farm project, the renewable energy industry risks losing public support for solar farms.
Instead of having applicants apply to build a solar farm, Amper suggests that the government should “locate them where they belong” first and then accept applicants for those appropriate locations. The county should look at technically feasible locations, rule out the ones that require clearing of trees or negatively affect true agricultural production, then consider water recharge impacts and proximity to residential neighborhoods, he said.
“Everybody is finally delighted that we are going to have an alternate and sustainable form of energy, it would be a shame to mess that up by building public opposition for reasons unrelated to the benefits of solar,” Amper said. “ It is more important than ever that we site these projects correctly.”
Following the lawsuit over the proposed sod farm solar array as well as public outcry over other similar projects, Suffolk County Supervisor Edward Romaine stated that solar arrays should be developed in industrial and commercial areas and that it makes sense for the county, not the local towns, to develop guidelines for solar farms. The county planning commission is now working to develop countywide guidelines for solar installations.