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Solar farms: A boon or an eye sore?

Shown is a solar farm being constructed by NexAmp on Hales Mills Road in the town of Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Briana O'Hara)

Technology is ever changing and evolving. Through that technology comes new ways to communicate, watch television, listen to music, find a date and even get to work. Included in these lifestyle changing technologies are new ways to generate electricity through the use of solar farms, also known as community solar.

All this new technology has many positives. However, along with the positives comes negatives.

Although solar farms create a greener way to generate energy and cut down electric bills, many people have spoken out against the solar farms. Many have stated the installations can be an eye sore or they can take away from the agriculture. Additionally, some believe they should be assessed at full evaluation, meaning they shouldn’t get tax breaks.

Solar farm/community solar: What is it and how does it work?

A solar farm — also referred to as a photovoltaic power station — is a large-scale solar array that is big enough to supply electricity to the power grid. Solar farms are solar, but without rooftop panels, that use virtual metering credits to lower utility costs for hundreds of homes.

Shown is a solar farm being constructed on Hales Mills Road in the town of Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Briana O'Hara)

Solar energy works through the solar panels, which soak up the sun. That sunlight is converted into direct current (DC) and travels through an inverter which converts the electricity from DC to alternating current (AC) which is used to power homes. Solar farms work in a similar way, but are roofless solar and homes are not receiving power directly from the solar farm itself.

“There are no moving parts. It’s not dangerous and it works with the environment,” said Andrew Bernstein, managing partner with Kearsarge Energy.

The solar companies who operate the solar farms connect to National Grid. The energy collected through the process is converted through an inverter and then gets put back on the grid.

According to a diagram from Nexamp, any National Grid customers — both homeowners or renters — can subscribe to local solar farms which feeds clean energy into the community’s electricity grid, earning credits for the power generated. Those credits show up on a subscriber’s utility bill from National Grid, saving them as much as 10 percent on their annual electricity cost.

Keith Hevenor, communication manager with Nexamp, said for example if a National Grid customer who subscribed to a solar farm gets a bill for $100, their credits offset the bill at 10 percent, making their bill $90.

“Basically how it works is we get a net meter price from National Grid and sell it at a discount to residents,” Bernstein said.

Concerns with solar farms

Some concerns many residents have expressed regarding solar farms have been that they take away from the agriculture, may potentially harm the land, and are often viewed as eye sores.

One way to address these concerns are through many meetings and public hearings.

When proposing a solar farm to a municipality, representatives of solar companies attend those meetings and public hearings, which give them the opportunity to answer any questions and address any concerns before plans are even voted on and then later constructed.

Also in the planning stages of these solar farms and when selecting where they are placed, companies consider many factors including location, size, proximity to residents, vegetation, exposure to sun, closeness to main roads and utility studies are conducted, Hevenor said.

“If done properly, they’re not necessarily an eye sore,” Bernstein said. “They more so blend in with the land.”

Bernstein said when determining where to build a solar farm, they consider whether the land is underutilized, if the town wants the facility, that the land is not too close to neighbors, if it can connect to the grid and if it will work with the land.

“We’re willing to work with towns,” Hevenor said.

Hevenor said where solar farms are located mostly depends on where the land is suitable. The location most likely won’t be suitable if there is heavy vegetation or high capacity powerlines.

He said they usually look for land that is already cleared so they don’t have to remove any vegetation or trees. They usually use unused farmland. Desirable plots will have a lot of sun exposure and be near main roads for easy access to the land. However, they do try to put the array far away from the main road so they are hidden from public view.

The upside of solar farms

Solar farms are typically built on underutilized land leased from the property owners for 25 to 30 years.

“They keep farms alive and provide a use for the land,” Bernstein said.

He said the solar panels and array are made of basic technology such as glass and steel. He said they are not reflective.

Hevenor said solar farms have a light foot print and everything is constructed above ground.

Solar farms are usually leased for 25 to 30 years because that is their usual shelf life.

Bernstein said the solar panels degrade a half percent per year.

“We do monitor its performance, and if it is not generating we identify the problem,” Hevenor said.

Hevenor said they do degrade over time and once the lease is up, the solar companies are responsible to decommission the solar farms and return the land back to its original state. There is also the option to extend the lease with the property owner and the degraded panels can be replaced with new ones.

“Community solar is a nice option for people who want to be involved, but aren’t home owners,” Hevenor said.

He said it is for homeowners and people who rent apartments. If a renter isn’t allowed to put solar panels on the roof of their building, then community solar would be useful for them.

Hevenor said it is also a great way to generate electricity using clean energy.

“Community solar is a great way to do that,” he said.

Regulating solar farms

With all the concerns that residents have expressed, local governments have been taking action creating rules and regulations for solar farms.

Recently, the towns of Mayfield, Perth and Broadalbin — along with the Fulton County Board of Supervisors — adopted local laws to opt out of automatic state law tax exemptions for solar farms.

According to the Broadalbin local law, “No exemption under Real Property Tax Law section 487 shall be applicable to town of Broadalbin taxes, with respect to any solar or wind energy system or farm waste energy system. No exemption under Real Property Tax Law section 487 shall be applicable to town of Broadalbin taxes with respect to any micro, hydro-electric energy system, fuel electric generating system, micro-combined heat and power generated equipment system or electric energy, storage equipment or electric energy storage system.”

Mayfield Town Supervisor Richard Argotsinger said the county had been having issues getting solar companies to agree to Payment In Lieu of Taxes or PILOT programs, so they decided to opt out, therefore solar farms would have to be assessed at full evaluation.

The local law does not prevent solar farms from being developed, but allows the county and towns to opt out of granting automatic solar farm tax exemptions.

One example of a solar farm and municipality working on a tax agreement is Nexamp, which is currently building a 5.7 mega-watt community solar project on 30 acres near Hales Mills Road in the town of Johnstown.

Hevenor said they’re currently working on a tax agreement with the town and expect to have that complete by the end of the year.

Another way the town of Mayfield is working to regulate solar farms is through a moratorium on the town’s zoning laws to define where a solar farm can and can’t be built.

“We want to make it clear where they can be and where they should not be,” Argotsinger said.

He said a number of people have expressed concerns with the visibility of the solar farms claiming them to be somewhat of an eye sore.

Argotsinger said by changing the zoning, zoning farms would required to be built far back off road, so they will be least visible and not in public view.

Conclusion

Although solar energy has been around for many years — and has been used in various ways including a solar powered airplane — solar farms are still a relatively new concept. Over the past decade, solar farms have been popping up all over. They are built to last around 25 to 30 years and most solar farms currently operating have yet to be up and running that long yet, so it is not clear how advanced they might be in the next 20 or 30 years. So as technology is constantly advancing and changing, who knows if solar energy will be the most energy efficient way to generate electricity?

“How long is solar [energy] going to be the green way to do it?” Argotsinger asked. “Technology is always changing. Who is to say something else will come.”

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