Fossil fuel extraction has dramatically affected our landscape for well over a century. With the press of climate change, converting to renewable energy sources is essential. That process is underway and conservationists are working to advance it while ensuring key values remain protected. Can we sum up where this stands for solar siting in one short update? Let’s try.
The Chesapeake region is not alone in this. Conservationists in the Hudson River Valley have jumped full in, as New York State adopted a goal of 70% of energy from renewables by 2030. Scenic Hudson has set out a policy paper and a guide to siting renewable energy, both driven by the need to make the conversion and protect the valley’s values. In short, it’s all about siting, first and foremost — prioritizing development on previously disturbed areas.
Maryland recently adopted a goal of 50% from renewables by 2030, including 14.5% from solar by 2028. Similar to the Hudson, concerns are about siting, especially the potential impact to agriculture. A “Governor’s Task Force on Renewable Energy Development and Siting” issued a preliminary report in December 2019. It calculates that 90% of solar siting typically occurs on agricultural lands. Assuming that pattern, it would take 26,348 acres to meet the 14.5% solar goal. To minimize this, the task force recommends maximizing use of rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, degraded lands and rights of way.
The Abel Foundation issued An Opportunity for Maryland to Get Solar Siting Right in 2019 with ten recommendations, among them analyzing opportunities for solar development on developed and disturbed land and less productive farmland to assess the capacity of those lands to meet solar demand. Some communities are working on this now. The Valley Planning Council has contracted with the Chesapeake Conservancy on a detailed analysis of optimal solar siting for Baltimore County and City; the results of that work are due later this spring.
A recurrent concern across the region is how solar siting might impact already protected lands. The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association (PALTA) developed a helpful guide on this recently. A key point: “solar facilities can be sited nearly anywhere; conserved land is generally a poor choice.” Among many topics, the guide includes information on how solar development can in some cases coexist with other beneficial uses like farming and pollinator habitat.
An example from Virginia picks up on the co-benefits point. Virginia DCR and Virginia DEQ recently published Pollinator-Smart: Comprehensive Manual, a guide for pollinator-friendly solar energy development.
Solar siting is primarily a matter of local decision-making in Virginia (and elsewhere). In 2019 the Piedmont Environmental Council developed a policy document that serves as a useful evolving guide for localities on utility-scale solar. Once again, siting is key in order to protect other conservation values like prime farmland, historic and natural resources and scenic viewsheds.
At a national level, the Land Trust Alliance has developed several resources, as part of its Land & Climate program to help land trusts address climate change. These include two 2019 publications, a guide on renewable energy and land trusts and pointers on siting renewables in the context of conservation easements.
This one short overview can’t possibly cover all the details as the Chesapeake region wrestles with how to advance solar and land conservation. But, we’ll follow up with more examples as the work continues to evolve.
In some cases solar installations can be sited and designed to be compatible with other uses, like certain types of agriculture and to increase pollinator habitat. (Images: Daily Hampshire Gazette/Sarah Crosby (left); Fresh Energy (right).