Around the country, and no less so in Western New York, independent dairy farmers are under economic siege. It’s difficult for them to make a living producing the milk and related products that are falling under the sway of corporate farming.
So, when these struggling New Yorkers are offered the chance to monetize their underused pastures by renting the space out for arrays of solar panels, the response should be, “Yes. Go for it.” It’s good for them and it’s good for the rest of us, as we look for ways to leave behind fossil fuels and the environmental damage they cause.
That’s what’s happening in parts of Western New York, as solar energy companies lease idle land from struggling farmers and put money in their pockets. The largest such project in the state is now in the permitting process. If approved, solar panels will cover 2,500 acres of land in the southern Erie County towns of Concord and Sardinia.
One farmer there, Chuck Bockhahn of Sardinia, already leases 200 to 300 acres of his land to that company, EDF Renewables of San Diego. He hopes to take in $1,000 per acre, or up to $300,000 and with fewer expenses than running a money-losing dairy farm.
“The dairy industry is driving me broke,” the 55-year-old farmer said recently. Bockhahn, who once had a milking herd of 73 cows, sold the last one in September. The arrangement with EDF offers him hope. “There’s going to be more room for profit,” he said.
Part of the reason EDF came to New York is because of the state’s commitment to renewable energy. A law passed this year sets a goal of securing 70% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The challenge will be in navigating the currents of Article 10 of the Public Service Law, signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo eight years ago.
Some say the law is far too cumbersome if the state is to meet its self-set deadline of 2030. “If you’re really serious about addressing climate change, then you have projects that can be built in an economical manner … ” said Buffalo lawyer Daniel A. Spitzer.
Spitzer represents the Town of Sheldon which is considering a smaller project by a different company. That project requires only town approval because it falls below the 25-megawatt threshold that triggers Article 10 oversight.
Plainly, some kind of vetting process is necessary, but the state needs to ensure that its requirements don’t unnecessarily conflict with the urgent need to shed our reliance on fossil fuel, which is a leading cause of climate change.
Local officials face the same challenge. The supervisors of both Sardinia and Concord expressed some ambivalence about the EDF project.
“One side of me doesn’t want to see government tell you what you can do with your property,” said Concord Supervisor Clyde M. Drake. “On the other hand, you hate to see prime farmland covered with solar panels.”
Why, if the land can’t be productively used for farming? Let’s get on with this.