Cutting down forests for solar energy is not just wrong but also stupid.
The proposal by National Grid and NextEra to clear-cut 350 acres of old-growth forest beside the shuttered Shoreham nuclear plant for the largest, industrial-scale solar factory in New York pits the environment against the environment for no reason.
We must replace fossil fuel plants with renewable energy, and the state’s goal of producing 50 percent of the state’s energy needs with alternative sources by 2030 is admirable. But siting solar arrays in the right places should be as important to solar proponents as it is to other environmentalists.
Destroying forests for solar is a false choice: We need both. Trees do more than clean our air. They protect our underground water supply, provide habitat for animals and improve the quality of our lives. Long Islanders have approved referendum after referendum, more than $2 billion to protect open space. That’s more money for land preservation than has been spent by 45 states. So there’s no doubt Long Islanders support protecting land and water.
Solar belongs on rooftops, in parking lots and on previously cleared land. It does not belong in residential areas, on farms that produce food or on woodlands. The Suffolk County Planning Commission has a solar-siting policy that prohibits clearing forests for solar on county land. And Suffolk has promoted solar projects in places where solar belongs.
Brookhaven Town, where the Shoreham proposal sits on the shore of Long Island Sound, opposes the NextEra proposal. The town had zoned the subject property A-10, meaning residential development cannot exceed one house for every 10 acres, and the housing must be clustered. And town Supervisor Ed Romaine and I have asked the Long Island Power Authority to reject this plan in favor of those on previously cleared sites like Riverhead’s Enterprise Park in Calverton. Romaine said he would go to court to protect the Shoreham forest.
In Brookhaven, Planning Commissioner Tullio Bertoli is working to provide a system of economic incentives and disincentives to encourage proper solar siting. He proposes having the town limit permissible clearing if solar projects are targeted for woodlands and would provide increased space to those constructing solar on rooftops and parking areas. Another suggestion that emerged from a recent conference on solar power and Molloy College’s Sustainability Institute, is to provide economic incentives to offset the higher cost of building on parking lots.
Proper planning for solar would start with a land survey. Since solar arrays must be built proximate to transmission lines or substations, planners merely need to identify the land that meets the specifications and choose the most suitable sites for solar. In addition, Long Island can’t meet the “50 by ’30” state goal for alternative power by solar alone. Wind turbines are far more efficient and productive than solar arrays and offshore wind will be essential to meet Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s timetable.
One way to reach the “50 by ’30” goal is for homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs. Of course, the best solution for the trees is preservation. In fact, when KeySpan faced development in Northville in Southold Town, then-Gov. George E. Pataki and KeySpan Corp. chief executive Robert Catell worked to preserve the property as a state park. National Grid, the owner of the land NextEra proposes to develop, should do the same with the Cuomo administration.
Finally, advocates of industrial-scale solar have a selfish reason for preventing improper siting of solar factories. If solar keeps popping up in residential areas or at the expense of our woodlands, there’s the serious risk of losing the public support for solar energy it took decades to win.
We’re asking LIPA, government officials, solar developers and true environmentalists to oppose unnecessarily trading our natural treasures for improperly sited industrial-scale solar energy.
Richard Amper is the executive director of Long Island Pine Barrens Society.