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Long Island needs to think regionally when it comes to solar power

Paradise Solar Energy Center in New Jersey on

Paradise Solar Energy Center in New Jersey on Sept. 26, 2011. National Grid and NextEra are proposing to build the largest solar energy array in the state on 350 acres of wooded property beside the shuttered Shoreham nuclear power plant. Credit: Doug Murray

A clean-energy advocate looks at a proposal for a 72-megawatt solar farm in Shoreham capable of powering a whopping 13,000 homes and shouts hurrah. An environmentalist sees 350 acres of trees that would have to be destroyed and howls in protest.

Who’s right? Who knows?

Once again, Long Island’s piecemeal approach to solar power makes it impossible to properly evaluate a serious plan and put it into a context beyond those of opposing advocates with tunnel vision.

The solar farm being pitched by National Grid and NextEra Energy Resources would be more than double the size of the state’s current biggest array, at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. It would be located on 350 acres of waterfront woodlands owned by National Grid, next to the shuttered nuclear reactor in Shoreham, on land zoned for residential use, one house per 10 acres. Those are facts we know.

What we don’t know is how this solar farm would fit into energy goals enunciated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to obtain 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. We don’t know what part the solar array could play in a plan PSEG Long Island has been working on for Long Island’s future energy sources. The unveiling of that plan recently was postponed until August or September because the Long Island Power Authority and the state asked PSEG to do more analysis of offshore wind energy. New York and LIPA are looking at two large proposals off Long Island’s shores that could add nearly 800 megawatts to the region’s grid.

PSEG, which manages Long Island’s electric grid, has said the region needs no new power generation until 2028. But we also know that climate change demands that we wean ourselves off fossil fuels and move to alternative forms of energy like solar. But how do we want to travel toward this clean-energy promised land? And at what cost? Where can solar panels be placed, especially the large arrays that are more cost effective? There is no inventory of rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, abandoned industrial sites and the like. Are there enough acceptable sites to meet our needs?

We know the many benefits of 350 acres of forest — aquifer protection, habitat for many animal species, carbon dioxide absorption and recreation, among others. For those not worried about trees, this is a unique spot perhaps better used for a deepwater port that would bring cargo to Long Island and remove many trucks from our clogged roads.

The current solar power landscape is a kind of Wild West. A solar developer — such as NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of a major utility formerly known as Florida Power & Light, which proposed a massive wind farm off Jones Beach more than a decade ago — finds property near a substation or power line that can handle the influx of electricity, and submits a proposal. And a decision is made without any framework of principles and data. LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone will speak at a Long Island Regional Planning Council meeting Tuesday, a venue where the discussion of producing guidelines could begin.

When it comes to solar power, our region needs a lot more enlightenment on the best and brightest spots to capture it. — The editorial board