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Policy Memo: Promoting Agrivoltaics Through New York State's Model Solar Energy Local Law

Beauty isn't cheap:  community solar land can cost more than rates can support

In Brief

This FDCE participant addressed this memo to the siting team of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. 

A lawyer with a conservation organization, she brings economic and scientific thinking to bear. 

The memo argues for priority to solar installations on farmland, detailing benefits that can accrue to all stakeholders. 

Summary: NYSERDA should update its Model Solar Energy Local Law to include sample provisions that incentivize agrivoltaics. This will align agricultural preservation and renewable energy goals and promote community support for solar projects. NYSERDA should also provide training and technical assistance to local governments to help them adopt local law that incentivizes agrivoltaics through the existing Clean Energy and Climate Smart Communities programs.
Agrivoltaics can help meet dual policy goals and reduce public opposition

As part of its mandate for economy-wide decarbonization, the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) requires New York to transition to 70% renewable energy supply by 2030 and 100% emissions-free energy by 2040. The CLCPA established the Climate Action Council (CAC) and charged it with preparation of a scoping plan to implement the CLCPA. The Draft Scoping Plan released by the CAC for public comment in December, 2021, acknowledges that meeting renewable energy targets will require significant and rapid deployment of existing renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar, and energy storage.  Further, this buildout hinges on successful project siting and community acceptance.
Many host communities, farmers and other stakeholders across the state have raised concerns about the potential impact on farmland of the significant amount of large-scale and distributed solar energy development necessary to meet CLCPA targets. A recent survey conducted by American Farmland Trust revealed “concern that solar projects could take tens of thousands of acres out of production and negatively impact local farming communities.” Loss of important soils, leased farmland, and agricultural productivity are also often cited as a reason for public opposition to proposed solar energy facilities.
Agrivoltaics, or the strategic combination of energy and agricultural production on the same land, can “contribute to achieving sustainable energy and food goals simultaneously while possibly reducing local opposition to [photovoltaic] deployment.” Therefore, it is critical to find ways that agricultural production can be combined with solar in the interest of mitigating impacts, supporting agriculture, and fostering community acceptance.
New York policy recognizes the value of agrivoltaics
The Draft Scoping Plan specifically recommends that the State should “research and incentivize the viability of agrivoltaics” (defined as “the co-location of solar powered projects and agriculture”) to “integrate solar into the agricultural communities and provide habitat improvement for threated and endangered species.”
Permissive local law is critical to agrivoltaics development
The best way to promote and enable agrivoltaics is through a legal framework that combines federal and state renewable energy financing mechanisms with favorable state and local land use policies. Local land use policy is “the most significant catalyst or inhibitor for agrivoltaic development” in the U.S. In New York, smaller solar projects are subject to local environmental and land use review, while major renewable energy projects (25MW and above) permitted by the State must be constructed and operated “in accordance with the substantive provisions of all local laws ….” Therefore, local planning and zoning can play a critical role in enabling agrivoltaics – and promoting community acceptance - for all sizes of solar projects.
NYSERDA should update its Model Solar Energy Local Law to include sample provisions that incentivize agrivoltaics
NYSERDA’s Clean Energy Siting Team has developed a Model Solar Energy Local Law and provides training and guidance to local communities on planning and zoning for solar. The latest version of NYSERDA’s Model Solar law suggests promoting agrivoltaics through incentive zoning but does not otherwise provide specific recommendations or include model language for local laws that incentivize agrivoltaics. The Model Solar Energy Law should be updated to include this information.
This is consistent with the recent recommendation of the state Farmland Protection Working Group (FPWG). In May, the FWPG released an Interim Report setting forth a set of prioritized preliminary strategies for further exploration and refinement, including: “Facilitate further research related to dual-use or co-utilization of agricultural production and utility-scale renewable energy projects; Incentivize developers and landowners to continue to utilize land for farming within the project site, co-existing with solar projects; and Updating NYSERDA’s model solar energy law to enhance treatment of agricultural issues.”
Such model language should promote uptake of agrivoltaics by making it a clearly defined and widely permitted use, providing flexibility for project design and layout, and avoiding barriers to its deployment, such as limitations on placement in agricultural soils, setback requirements and height restrictions. 
NYSERDA should provide training and technical assistance along with financial support 
NYSERDA should also provide training and technical assistance to local governments to support the incorporation of such provisions into local plans and zoning laws. Adoption of permissive local solar energy laws with agrivoltaics provisions should qualify under the existing Climate Smart Communities and Clean Energy Communities programs so that communities can get grants and credits toward certification. This will incentivize adoption and provide funding to help defray the costs of the required municipal legislative and environmental review processes.