Thirty-three years ago, Chip Barrett bought his farm in Millerton to raise sheep and cattle.
Over the years, this fourth-generation farmer and his wife, Kirby, who run Driftways Farm, have moved into different businesses to boost the bottom line. They board horses and run a dog kennel. Chip also moonlights as a Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector.
“The sheep were time consuming, we didn’t really make any money from it. The cows I thought we’d make some money with the beef,” said Barrett, noting it may have been different if they expanded into the New York City market. “If I, did maybe we’d make a better living.
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“Most farmers that are working farmers can’t just farm and they need to do something else and make money,” he said.
Now, Chip has been considering a new type of farming – solar.
“I have a perfect location,” Barrett said. “We have 50 acres open field with no trees, and I’d really like to do it. I could probably supply enough power to generate enough power for the whole town.”
Farmers like Chip Barrett are looking to solar as a way to earn money off their land by leasing acres to solar developers. For some, and not just farmers, the 21st century green tech is enticing.
But for landowners, leasing acreage can have potential downsides, such as lost tax breaks and decades long contracts. Locations and topography can be a challenge, as can infrastructure demands.
Those wanting to develop their own solar farm face steep upfront costs and potential opposition from their neighbors. Local towns are developing new laws and regulations to balance the needs of the developers and the concerns of the community.
The rate of solar projects – big and small – in New York has been growing.
In 2003, 185 solar projects were completed in New York. Of those, five were in Dutchess County and three in Ulster County, according to New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. By 2013, New York had 4,372 completed projects that year, of which 121 were in Dutchess and 159 in Ulster.
In 2017, there were 13,582 projects completed in New York, with 497 in Dutchess and 386 in Ulster. So far for 2018, there have been 2,476 projects in New York, 58 of which were in Dutchess and 58 in Ulster.
Solar farms, also known as community solar, is a shared renewable energy plant where electricity is generated for more than one household. Folks can buy into a plan through leading energy companies.
They involve solar arrays and run from 1 to 3 acres to upwards of 40 acres. A typical 2 megawatt solar project generates enough electricity to power over 300 households.
Barrett is one of several local growers who have been considering solar farms as way to generate additional income, in part to keep their land and farms running.
“It’s extra income… I thought it would be a good opportunity for some clean tech and possibly make some money,” said Barrett, 62, who also sits on Dutchess County Farm Bureau’s board. A lease would also be a consistent paycheck.
“As long as the numbers work, I am interested,” he explains. “It’s (farming) been a great business we feel very fortunate and blessed to have the business, but if it’s a working farm pretty much you have to do something else.”
A perfect storm
Solar farms are at the forefront of an overall national and statewide trend that includes a push for renewable energy. In the valley, interest seems to be growing as projects ranging from panels on homes to solar farms are developed.
The projects are often touted as an environmentally friendly energy alternative, potential income for landowners, a business opportunity for solar developers and for local government and even academic institutions a chance to be a part of something the state is pushing through incentives.
Hyde Park Supervisor Aileen Rohr calls solar a “huge economic driver,” and expects it will attract work involving construction, maintenance and upkeep.
Increased interest in solar farms comes at a time when clean energy is being pushed, and existing energy sources such as nuclear energy plants are closing. Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan is shutting in 2021 and there will be a need to replace the approximately 2,000 megawatts produced daily.
While California, Hawaii and Massachusetts lead the way when it comes to solar farms, New York is fast catching up.
The state is ranked 11th in the U.S. when it comes to the amount of solar energy currently generated, and third with number of solar jobs including residential, commercial and community solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
New York has been pushing renewable energy namely wind and solar. In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a clean energy standard, requiring 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from sources like solar and wind by 2030. Earlier this year, Cuomo announced $1.4 billion in awards for 26 large-scale renewable energy projects, including three in Ulster.
“New Yorkers are embracing solar energy at an increasingly rapid rate,” said Alicia Barton president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority at the recent event announcing SUNY New Paltz’s solar and battery storage system.
The state has 330 solar farms projects with 13 that are operating, according to NYSERDA.
Push for renewable
Major solar farm developers have their eye on the state and specifically the Hudson Valley, where there is ample open space.
Counties such as Ulster are known for their farms. Ulster has 71,222 acres of farmland and 486 farms, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. There are several solar farms in the pipeline in Ulster, and Dutchess County is starting to see projects too.
“New York is a big opportunity for us, and New York is a very important market to us,” said Cameron Bard, director of operations at Cypress Creek Renewables, a California-based company that has a project underway in the Town of Poughkeepsie.
NRG has projects in Dutchess, Ulster, Greene and Orange counties with an inaugural project in Westtown in Orange County.
Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. confirmed it is seeing a jump in applications – to date 85 – from solar developers.
“We have many applications currently pending for community solar facilities, but only one has been built so far,” said John Maserjian, spokesperson for Central Hudson, referring to the 2017 solar farm launched in Kingston.
Solar developers are clear about what they seek in ideal land. No endangered species, wetlands or prime farmland, Bard said. Flat land is panel friendly.
“Siting a solar farm is very difficult,” said Jeff Irish, the CEO of Hudson Solar, a solar equipment energy supplier in Rhinebeck.
Prime solar farm land is tucked away to avoid opposition from those who don’t want to look at the solar arrays. The land needs to be close enough to be plugged into the existing electric grids run by Central Hudson or New York State Electric and Gas.
This can leave farmers such as Barrett somewhat sidelined. He’s learned his land is not easily accessible to area power lines.
“That’s a showstopper for us. I think a lot of farmers don’t live near main superhighways,” he said.
The economic side of things don’t always seem so appealing either considering the payback is an annual stipend and there is a risk the land will no longer be assessed as farm land, which could mean a higher tax bill. Farmers also are locked in with the average lease of 25 years, some extending to 40 years.
“You have to enter into a lease hold,” said Steven Mogel, a land use attorney in Sullivan County, explaining the land owner is locked into the lease.
Bill Werba, a third-generation apple farmer in Marlborough, explored leasing out roughly six acres of land that wasn’t farming friendly on his 100-acre farm to solar developers. He is already leasing most of the land to apple farmers.
Werba considers himself a solar loyalist and built an 88-panel solar array at his farm for his own use in 2015.
But ultimately, he says it didn’t make financial sense, after weighing the pros and cons of the lease and potential losing some of the existing tax exemptions he receives under the agriculture assessment.
New York Farm Bureau and its branch bureaus have advocated that farmers who lease to solar farm developers shouldn’t lose their agriculture assessment so long as 50 percent of their power is generated by solar, but it has yet to become law.
“If I do a solar farm I then pay residential rates. I’ve done the math and it doesn’t pay for me to do that… Right now, it doesn’t look lucrative enough for me because you give up your agriculture exemptions,” Werba said. “I think solar is great but I think the zoning will be an aggravation and worth the minimal net income from it.”
While customers can expect to see an immediate savings off of their electric bill (at least 5 percent to 10 percent on energy bills, according to Cypress Creek), it can take solar developers much longer to recoup the upfront investments often in the range of $1.5 million to $2.5 million, which can include the land.
Solar development companies also say solar is relatively low maintenance. Panels have an average lifespan of over 25 years and, if well maintained, can last up to 40 years.
“We make large local investments and wouldn’t be doing so if we weren’t confident the project wouldn’t be operational for the duration of the lease,” said Bard, pointing to its New York projects.
Hudson Solar’s Irish said: “We think that is important in the Hudson Valley. The benefits to the landowner are a modest income from the lease of some of their land, possibly some solar panels to offset their own electric bill, and helping many members of their local community move to cleaner electricity and save money doing so.”
Considering future generations
Agriculture remains important to the economy in the mid-Hudson Valley.
In 2017, in Dutchess County agricultural sales were nearly $50 million, leading with livestock and crops, coming off of 678 farms across 112,482 acres of farmland.
In many cases, the farms are passed down from generation to generation.
Mogel, the land use attorney, says the reasons for leasing the land vary, but often it comes down to practicality. In Sullivan County, for example where dairy farms are diminishing, farmers are trying to keep the land in the family.
“The land for some folks it’s been there a long period of time, but they don’t want to cash out and become landless,” said Mogel. “Some see it as an asset for the children to sell or develop. Some want to keep it in their families and they see it as a potential way to do that the property can be saved. Sometimes it’s a false hope.”
While land owners are aware of the environmental perks of solar, more often they are considering their family’s future.
He continued: “The people coming to me often don’t have the luxury to say I’ll mortgage my future and kid’s future for the sake of the environment. They say it’s a nice thing but they are much more concerned of what their bottom line is.”
Solar developers concur and suggest solar farms might be keeping farms in business.
“In some cases, having solar leasing income allows farmers to stay on their land and preserve their farms for their families and their communities,” said Bard, director of operations at Cypress Creek Renewables.
While the American Farmland Trust supports solar farms, Jimmy Daukas, a senior program officer at the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, said they should be limited to less-than-ideal land.
“We don’t think it makes a lot of sense to site the solar in our most resilient farmland,” said Daukas.
Some environmental groups have adopted solar as a flagship topic addressing climate change and farmland preservation. Scenic Hudson, for example, points to the state’s push for renewable energy.
“I think it’s a natural extension of the mission we’ve always been working on fifty plus years,” said Audrey Friedrichsen, land use and environmental advocacy attorney for Scenic Hudson. “The question is how do we build public support” for community power, she said, “and where do we incentivize development?”
The organization also released its first renewable energy siting guide outlining best practices.
Solar companies are seeking ways to be green, including building pollinators and planting wild flowers alongside solar arrays.
“It increases crop yield, pollination is good for plants, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Cypress Creek’s Bard. The company confirmed all its New York projects will include pollinator habitats.
Challenges and pushback
Overall cities and towns welcome the idea of green and renewable energy, but wrestle over how they look visually and potential impact on property value.
Considering the growing inquiries from solar development companies and residents, numerous municipalities are responding to the fast-growing trend by coming up with local laws (see sidebar) including Rhinebeck.
“We as a town board are committed to renewable energy and this is just a portion of this,” said Rhinebeck Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia. The uptick in inquiries prompted Rhinebeck in 2017 to create its own law the addresses solar farms.
Michael Trimble, planning board chairman, is a proponent of solar and installed solar panels on his own home.
Trimble said he likes the “whole concept of them as a potential energy source. I think they are far more attractive and benign to the environment,” he said. “You can’t hear them, taste them or smell them. There’s certainly no danger such as electromagnetic operation,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”
But not everyone feels that way.
Last September, the town was hit with a lawsuit from three residents stating town officials had a special interest in a proposed solar farm project on historic Wartenburg Road, and have stakes in Hudson Solar that leads the project. Other opponents argue solar farms don’t fit in with the historical character of the town.
Mogel observes more recently there has been a wait-and-see among developers and growers who await to see what local regulations will emerge.
Wait and see
And then there is the question as to whether solar will ultimately bring in money for land owners.
The pros and cons are part of a conversation that farmers having. There is the opportunity to move into a new frontier and contribute to green energy. But the weight of family tradition and a familiar industry are powerful.
“Among the farmers, the concerns are the farmers are whether or not solar farms on your land are going to take away good farmland out of production,” said said Mark Adams, president of the Dutchess County Farm Bureau.
Back at Driftways Farm, Barrett continues to wrestle over whether to take the plunge into solar.
He’s not giving up.
He continues to call Central Hudson to ask if the company can rewire the infrastructure. And he continues to talk to developers and field letters of interest from developers too.
Amy Wu: [email protected], 845-451-4529, Twitter @wu_PoJo
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