The future of farming?

Agrivoltaics may soon be coming to Montgomery

By Carl Aiello
Posted 7/12/22

The large solar arrays have begun to line the Wallkill Valley landscape. Solar farms are springing to life where agriculture and - in one case - a miniature golf course once ruled the land.

But …

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The future of farming?

Agrivoltaics may soon be coming to Montgomery

Posted

The large solar arrays have begun to line the Wallkill Valley landscape. Solar farms are springing to life where agriculture and - in one case - a miniature golf course once ruled the land.

But what if a farmer wanted to continue to grow crops on a farm and was able to plant and grow them underneath solar panels that alternately allowed for shade and sunlight for the crops? What if the farmer could lease space to the provider of solar energy and earn additional income, while continuing to operate the farm?

The concept, known as agrivoltaics, is catching on elsewhere. It could soon come to the Town of Montgomery, provided a change in the town’s solar laws is approved.

Representatives of Lightstar, a Boston-based developer and investor in solar projects have made several appearances before the Montgomery Town Board in the hopes of gaining interest in the process and possibly attracting suitable candidates.

Lightstar would develop site-specific plans for each project. The solar arrays would protect the soil and sustain the farmland and keep the soil in place during and after the construction process. Plans would incorporate agricultural infrastructure, such as fencing, irrigation, shelters. Farming equipment, however, might need to be adapted in order to tend to the soil and crops on the ground below the array.

“I’m not sure if my mower would fit under solar panels,” said Councilwoman Kristen Brown, a local farmer.

In that event, according to the Lightstar website, the company could subsidize any new equipment or customizations that may be required to fit with the dimensions of the solar array’s posts and panels.

According to the American Solar Grazing Association, more than 120 crops are grown on these solar farms.

Solar power produced at these farms could be sold to local utilities or used for farm operations. To be efficient, the farms would need to be near a distribution line.

Kami Cohen, Development Manager for the Lightstar Agrivoltaics team, appeared before the town board last week, at a hearing on a proposed amendment to the town’s solar law.

“The array is designed with farming flexibility in mind – the array can accommodate a variety of farm plans and crops, including grazing,” Cohen said. “Once we have a path to permitting, we hope to be able to sign a farmer up. As of right now we have been in touch with two farmers, but we need to be farther along in the permitting process in order for the farmer to feel comfortable making plans.”

She said the company would pay stipends to the farmers who are leasing their property for solar power production. The panels, which rise to a height of 14 feet, tilt from east to west throughout the day to allow for a balanced distribution of sunlight. The spacing and the angle of the panels allows light to reach the plants below. The panels can also provide shade for crops.

“I think we’d be one of the first communities in the state of New York to do this,” said Town Supervisor Brian Maher, who is hopeful that a zoning amendment to allow the process can be adopted at the town board’s August 4 meeting.

Lightstar has one potential site in mind for the Town of Montgomery: a 3.4 mW installation on 16 acres at 55 Plains Road, the DiMartino family property. The acreage is currently being used for vegetable and hay production, with Lightstar offering financial and agricultural support for the next two decades

“The current property is being hayed by the landowner to keep the land maintained,” Cohen said, “but the landowners are interested in lowering barriers to entry for young and beginning farmers looking for land in the Hudson Valley, which can be very difficult to afford.”

Scenic Hudson submitted comments to the state regarding support for agrivoltaics in a report submitted by Audrey Friedrichsen, Land Use and Environmental Advocacy Attorney.

“We note that the current state of knowledge and uptake of agrivoltaics in New York is low but growing, and is being supported by the efforts of the New York Farmland Protection Working Group (FPWG) and the Agricultural Technical Working Group (ATWG), as well as research and advocacy by many others,” Friedrichsen wrote. “In order to increase uptake and dissemination, the Final Scoping Plan should include a comprehensive agrivoltaics program that combines state financial and other incentives with enabling local laws, robust research, and effective outreach and education.”

While the concept garnered enthusiasm from town officials and others, it does have its skeptics.

“What happens if the farmer doesn’t keep farming it,” asked Mark Hoyt, a former town board member who said he’s been farming in the Town of Montgomery for more than 35 years.

Cohen said that Lightstar could contract with an agricultural entity, a partner who could farm the land.

“We are very serious about compliance and ensuring the site is farmed throughout the life of the solar project. We understand the value of productive farmland and farm viability,” she added. “ Lightstar provides a meaningful quarterly stipend to the farmer to keep farming the land and has contracted with an agricultural management company to keep the land in production and we are willing to risk significant financial penalties levied by the Town to ensure the site remains in production. In the case of farmer succession, Lightstar works with the management company, American Farmland Trust, and others to keep the land in production. As a very last resort, the farm can always produce hay for livestock as is currently being produced by the landowners.”

A change in the town’s zoning law to allow for a “dual-use” solar system could be enacted at the August 4 meeting. That’s when the public hearing on the proposal is scheduled to resume.

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