Renewable Energy, Open Space, and Agriculture – New York Can’t Have it All

New York faces the prospect of growing land use conflicts in coming years, due to the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) of 2019, the prospective Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond and the important role of agriculture in the state’s economy.

The $4.2 billion Environmental Bond will provide funding for open space preservation, both for flood control and outdoor recreation. Based on prior support for New York environmental bond acts, and current strong support among New Yorkers for environmental protection, the bond seems likely to pass.

Open space preservation — including reforestation to increase the land’s capacity to capture and store atmospheric carbon — is also a goal of the CLCPA But the climate law also requires increases in solar and wind energy facilities.

Finally, New York is also an important agricultural state, among the nation’s leaders in producing dairy products, apples, cherries and other products.

And here’s where we run head-on into reality. Among open space, solar and wind power, and agriculture, we can have any two of the three, but we can’t maximize all of them at the same time.

First, we can have more solar and wind combined with farmland preservation, but only if the solar gets built on open (non-agricultural) space. While agriculture and wind power can co-exist because of the height and spacing of wind turbines, solar panels are too low and too closely spaced to allow mechanized agriculture.

Or instead, we could have more solar and wind combined with preservation of open space, but then we have to give up some farmland for the solar panels. For example, the country’s largest solar farm is to be built soon in Indiana, where it will cover 13,000 acres of prime farmland. That’s an area about the size of Albany. This land will be taken out of production for at least twenty years. If we are going to rely permanently on solar energy, land may be converted from agricultural use forever.

Finally, we could both preserve farmland and open space, but then we don’t have a place to put wind turbines and solar panels. Because solar panels can’t coexist with either agriculture or open space, and wind power and open space are in conflict.

In Norway, for example, the indigenous Sami people recently won a court ruling against windmills on the grounds that the turbines scared away the caribou (on which their culture and economy depend). Environmentalists may have similar concerns about wind turbines’ effects on wildlife here in New York. That’s in addition to the numbers of raptors and endangered bats windmills kills.

And for many people, wind turbines that are hundreds of feet tall with blinking red lights on top are an affront to their concept of natural open space. Local rejections of wind-farms are common across the U.S. No wonder New York went so far as to override local control of wind-farm siting. But that won’t stop local opposition and protests.

Politicians like to promise us that we can have everything we want, but we know it’s not really true. We will have to make tradeoffs. One study showed that increasing the renewable portion of New York’s energy portfolio to 80 percent could take up to ten percent of the state’s total land, “presenting challenges for other sectors such as agriculture, and the protection of, for instance, biodiversity.”

There is no clear solution to this land-use conflict. That is because there is no simple answer to which of the tradeoff outcomes we should prefer because people have different preferences between preserving farmland, preserving open space, and building renewable energy.

So building the demand for all three of these goals into state law only guarantees more challenges over every land use decision. And the state legislature that carelessly created this conflict will not resolve it, but will leave that to unelected and unaccountable officials in various state agencies. This way your elected representatives can avoid accountability for their own actions and perpetuate the myth that we really can have it all.

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