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200-acre solar farm planned at Brookhaven Lab

Solar panels (Dec. 17, 2009)

Solar panels (Dec. 17, 2009) Credit: AP File

With more than 167,000 solar panels spread across 200 acres, the solar farm planned at Brookhaven National Laboratory would be the largest of its kind in the Northeast.

The project takes Long Island's relationship with solar power - until now, mostly panels mounted on suburban rooftops - and re-imagines it on an industrial scale. Out in the woods and fields where scientists once conducted agricultural experiments, BP Solar wants to build the equivalent of a 32-megawatt generator, enough to power 4,500 homes, or most of Seaford. Many hope it will be a model for clean-energy initiatives nationwide.

About 150 acres of trees will be cleared for the project, something that riles open space advocate Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. But others say the benefits - a new local source of clean energy, and research access for Brookhaven scientists - far outweigh the environmental costs of the solar farm.

"We're building a power plant that's run by nature and does not put harmful pollutants into the air that we breathe," said Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island. "Someday we'll look back on this like we did the first unmanned satellites. This is the beginning of our clean-energy future, and it's happening right here on Long Island."

That energy will go to a Long Island Power Authority substation near the lab, then out through the grid that serves all of Long Island. The farm would put out less than half the juice of smaller plants such as the 79-megawatt Pinelawn Power facility in West Babylon.

LIPA has agreed to buy power produced there for 20 years; BP must have the plant up and running in 2011.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which operates the lab, will host the farm in exchange for research opportunities. As part of the arrangement, the lab might even get its own 1- to 2-megawatt solar farm, said BP Solar spokesman Pete Resler.

The project is in keeping with state and federal goals to increase the use of renewable energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, said Michael Deering, LIPA's vice president for environmental affairs.

But Amper said bulldozing woods for the sake of clean energy undercuts the project's environmental aims. "Are we going to transform our forests into solar arrays?" Amper said. "It's either two steps forward and one back at best."

The proposed site lies in the 47,500-acre compatible growth area of the 102,500-acre Long Island pine barrens, where some development is permitted. The federally owned lab is not bound by the Long Island Pine Barrens Act but it generally complies with the constraints. Those are intended to protect rare species and aquifers supplying local drinking water.

Officials with LIPA, DOE and BP Solar said putting the solar farm there, close to the existing substation, will mean less power lost in transmission.

They said the site is the only place on lab property for a project of this scale and intensity. Big, clustered installations are more cost-effective than solar panels on carports or buildings, making electricity cheaper for consumers.

Supporters say the solar farm's capacity to produce clean energy would far exceed the loss of carbon-absorbing vegetation.

Responding to Amper's objections, LIPA and its partners cobbled together an environmental mitigation package with the help of Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).

The project was reconfigured to preserve 14 acres of pine barrens to the north. Wildlife-friendly fences will allow small animals access to grasses around the panels. LIPA will also spend $2 million to preserve additional property in the pine barrens, and BP Solar plans to contribute $75,000 for ecological restoration there.

Amper remains concerned the lab wasn't placing enough value on the pine barrens.

But Bishop and environmental advocate Adrienne Esposito, who spent years on efforts to clean up pollution at the lab, both said the solar farm was worth it.

"This area has been riddled with contamination in the past," said Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "The most critical environmental challenge of our time is energy and we need to meet it with renewables. If we keep thinking about it myopically we're never going to get off the ground."

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