Farmland And Solar – Not Perfect Together

By on July 10, 2013

Many things are perfect together. Wine and chocolate … movies and popcorn … shorts and flip-flops … New Jersey and you.

But some are not – like solar power plants and farmland. You might think they’d make a perfect pair, since flat, open farm landscapes have easy access to the sun’s renewable energy.

But New Jersey’s farmland is precious. This state we’re in has some of the best soils in the world and a climate that fosters fresh, local food. If we want to remain the “Garden State,” we can’t cover productive farmland with utility-scale solar facilities that could easily be built on less sensitive surfaces.

Fortunately, the Christie administration has made it clear that large solar arrays should not be placed on farmland. The state’s Energy Master Plan and the Solar Act of 2012 direct solar facilities away from farmland. And the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) recently reinforced this policy – all steps in the right direction.

The Board of Public Utilities recently reviewed 57 applications for utility-scale “grid-supply” projects on farmland. It denied 26, approved three, disqualified seven, and deferred action on the remaining 21. Hopefully, the BPU will turn thumbs down on the remaining proposals as well!

Solar power is a great resource, and our state should reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. But solar energy projects only make sense if they’re built in the right places.

Solar projects are either “grid-supply” or “net-metered,” and it’s the former that causes concern in this case.

Grid-supply systems feed electricity from typically large (utility-scale) solar arrays directly into the regional power infrastructure. Net-metered systems, on the other hand, power individual homes, businesses, public buildings … and even farm operations.

The owner of a net-metered system can receive retail credit for unused energy generated, but profit is not the main purpose. For this reason, state regulations prevent owners from sizing solar systems larger than what they need for their own electricity needs.

The Energy Master Plan – the administration’s guidance on energy policy – discourages the development of grid-supply projects on farmland and, instead, directs them to sites like brownfields, landfills, rooftops and parking lots. And the Solar Act says the solar industry shouldn’t harm the preservation of open space and farmland.

To date, our state has spent over $1.5 billion to preserve more than 2,000 farms covering over 200,000 acres. These lands – and other agricultural lands that could and should be preserved – are critical for our food supply and should not be covered by renewable energy projects.

Governor Christie and the Board of Public Utilities are headed in the right direction, and should follow through by denying the 21 remaining grid-supply projects targeted for farmland.

Speak up for farmland and send your comments to the Board of Public Utilities! Go to www.bpu.state.nj.us/bpu/about/contact/index.shtml. For more information on solar siting and sustainable land use, go to www.anjec.org/pdfs/SolarWhitePaper2012.pdf.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

The State We’re In by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director,
New Jersey Conservation Foundation