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Corn, Potatoes, or Solar Panels?

Steering energy projects away from agricultural land.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Tom Vannah Photo
A Citizens Energy solar array in Whately

Across the country and beyond, our need for energy is increasingly in conflict with our need for land that’s suitable for growing food. At issue is not only the land used to cultivate corn for biomass; solar and wind farms are also competing for level land.

A case in point is California, which has set 2020 as a target date for drawing 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources. There the impetus for alternative energy development has made level land 10 to 20 times as expensive as it was a few years ago. To keep farmland from being auctioned off to the first energy developer who comes along, environmental groups are promoting so-called “Smart From the Start” programs to steer energy development toward desert terrain and other sites not well adapted for agriculture.

After Tulare County, S.C. approved 10 utility-scale solar installations on 1,799 acres of agriculturally zoned land, the local Farm Bureau asked the Board of County Supervisors last fall to protect agricultural land and to require that solar arrays be removed at the end of their active lives and the land returned to pristine condition.

New Jersey, a solar-friendly state, nevertheless has laws in place to protect its farmland by regulating how much acreage on a given farm can be used for a solar installation, and requiring that solar projects on agricultural land be reviewed by the state Department of Agriculture.

The problem is international. In the U.K. on Dec. 28, a headline in Mail On Line screamed, “Blight of the solar farms: Tory council wants to erect 500,000 panels and nine giant wind turbines on 900 acres of prime agricultural land.”

*

Now the conflict between solar and agricultural uses has reached the Valley, where miles of rich, level land, especially along the Connecticut River, have been eyed for energy development. Citizens Energy of Boston, founded by Joe Kennedy II and famous as a distributor of free or discounted heating fuel to low-income people, is working to create four solar installations in this area, two in Agawam, one in Whately and one—the most controversial—in Hatfield. The projects are being developed by Citizens Energy’s profit-making arm, Citizens Enterprises Corp.

The Citizens Energy sites in Agawam cover a total of 14 acres, with solar collectors to be installed on about 20 percent of the acreage. One of the parcels is on a privately owned, capped landfill, the other on undeveloped industrial land owned by Westmass Development Corp. That’s the kind of siting alternative energy developers should be seeking, say observers who are concerned about large solar farms on the Valley’s prime agricultural land. The sites are expected to be producing energy by the end of this month, according to Citizens Energy spokesman Brian Morrissey. They will supply 1.7 megawatts, enough to power 200 homes. The energy will be sold to Northeast Utilities for channeling into the regional power grid.

Also going into operation in January will be the 1.8 megawatt Citizens Energy solar array on agricultural land in Whately. There Citizens has a 25-year lease on 14 acres of property owned by the Szawlowski family, longtime potato farmers in the Valley. (The Szawlowskis also own the site Citizens Energy proposes to use for a solar farm in Hatfield.) Energy from that project will be sold to the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction, and is expected to save that county some $40,000 a year in energy costs.

In Hatfield, abutters have filed a suit in Hampshire County Land Court to try to stop the solar project Citizens Energy wants to build on a 35-acre site off Chestnut Street (the solar array would occupy about 13 acres). Opponents of the project say they are pro-solar and understand the importance of alternative energy, but object to the change such a large installation would make to the character of the tree-shaded rural town with its fabric of Victorian farmhouse architecture. And the zoning is improper for the solar array, they point out, because it is being sited in an area zoned rural residential instead of industrial.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Pill of Shutesbury, contends that the calculation of the plant’s cost that Citizens Energy presented in its application for a building permit—$1.7 million—is likely $10 million lower than the actual cost, which means that the town has been deprived of $40,000 in permit fees and a possible $3 million in taxes over the life of plant. To Hatfield residents who support the plant because it will bring revenue to the town, Pill told the Advocate, “I say, Watch your wallets!”

The next step in the suit will occur when the plaintiffs’ appeal of the building permit reaches the court, Pill said.

Beyond these local considerations, other observers express concern about the building of large-scale energy facilities on agricultural land.

“I think it’s troubling to put the ground-mounted systems all over the ground that could be growing food,” said Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Montague, who also owns acreage in Sunderland and Montague as well as renting land in Montague and Granby. Voiland said that when he bought his land in Montague in 2009, farmland in the Valley was going for about $6,000 an acre, but three years later the price had jumped to $10,000 an acre.

“We could have a more diversified agricultural system if our land wasn’t so expensive,” Voiland told the Advocate, “but farmers around here can only grow high-value crops because the land costs so much to begin with.” Voiland said the rising cost of farmland in this area makes it particularly difficult for farmers to break even on grain crops and dairy products, commodities that are essential to a basic diet for consumers. And organic farming, he pointed out, “takes even more land because you have to have room for crop rotation. ...I’ve found it very hard to find land in the first place. It’s taken more effort than I ever imagined to put together 100 acres to do our crop rotation.”

But Shelley Szawlowski of Szawlowski Realty, a spokeswoman for her family’s business, told the Advocate that the solar project represented a constructive use for the Hatfield parcel. “There’s good farmland and there’s poor farmland,” she said, “and when you grow a crop and you don’t have a good return, that’s when you have to stop and say, It’s not worth my return, so what else can I do with it? We could easily turn around and put a housing development in there, but that would actually impose on the people abutting more so than this does. We wanted to do something with the least impact.”

Szawlowski added that a screen of trees will keep the solar array from being visible enough to change the look of the part of town in which it will be located.

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The collision between the movement to build solar installations and the farming habit that’s long been established on the banks of the Connecticut is a benign one compared to the changes that marked other phases of energy development in the Northeast—for example, the takeover of large swatches of land in New Jersey to build oil refineries and tank farms, projects that changed the landscape forever and brought the constant threat of pollution and fiery explosion. Brian Morrissey, Citizens Energy’s officer in charge of solar development, says he and his firm are entirely in sympathy with the need for growing land. Citizens Energy’s solar projects, Morrissey says, are not incompatible with that need. First of all, he explained, the company leases land, typically for 20 or 25 years, so the change from agricultural use to energy production is not a permanent one. And, he explains, the solar fixtures are removable.

“[The solar installations] are for a finite number of years, and the great thing about these projects is, they’re very simple,” he said. “The foundation structures are just a metal pole that’s driven into the ground, about four to six feet. All the panels are basically installed on top of that. In Agawam we can’t just drive a pole into the landfill, so we formed large concrete ballast blocks like the barriers you see on the highway, and put the posts in there. We have an agreement with all our landowners: we just simply pull the stuff up out of the ground and we leave. The land is returned to agricultural use and there’s no longterm impact. You can look at this as a temporary use.”

On the other hand, taking land out of agricultural production for two decades or more means that much less food grown, and can certainly influence the availability and price of farmland. Voiland believes in alternative energy, and produces it himself; “We were able to install a 24-kilowatt system on the roof of one of our barns in Granby,” he told the Advocate. But he believes the siting of energy facilities should be carefully planned to avoid drawing land away from agriculture. “Capped landfills are a great idea because you don’t want to grow food on an old landfill,” he said, adding, “Food production is an absolutely critical thing for survival.”

A local organization that was willing to weigh in because it has a stake in both sides of the issue is CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), headquartered in South Deerfield. CISA director Margaret Christie told the Advocate that CISA “supports efforts to produce renewable energy locally, but also recognizes that high-quality farmland is a limited and essential resource for growing our local food system.”

At present, said Christie, conflicts between agriculture and alternative energy in the Valley are best umpired by the towns, several of which have drafted or are in the process of drafting bylaws specifically relating to solar arrays. She pointed to Whately’s bylaw, which requires that solar arrays larger than two acres be screened from view with native shrubs and trees; use no herbicides to control vegetation; mininize the use of concrete and other impervious materials to control drainage; and be totally removed within five months after the end of their functional lives, or, in case they are abandoned, after a year and a half, with the town empowered to have the removal done and the property owner liable for its cost.

“Local government,” said Christie, “can encourage use of marginal land for energy production, and require that energy installations are easily removable so that farmland can revert back to food production if it’s no longer used for energy.”•

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