Solar Meets Sheep (and Bees, and More)

The second word in “solar farm” can sound like a misnomer. Often solar panels sit on former agricultural land, but aren’t what we’d otherwise think of as a farm.

Agrivoltaics aims to change that by hosting PV panels and agriculture on the exact same land. Often, livestock like sheep graze under the solar panels. Sometimes the projects include pollinator habitat as well, which can benefit biodiversity, honey production or adjacent pollinator-dependent crops. And trials are being done growing shaded crops under raised panels, too.

Sheep graze among solar panels in Central New York (Photo: American Solar Grazing Association)

The agrivoltaics concept — also called dual-use solar, or when livestock are involved, solar grazing — is being successfully expanded elsewhere. That includes in our neighborhood of the Northeast (Massachusetts, the Finger Lakes). While it isn’t yet being done at scale in the Hudson Valley, for a range of reasons, interest among farmers and developers is growing.

“When solar’s done right, it can contribute to farm viability. It benefits biodiversity, it benefits pollinators — these larger goals of conservation are coming together,” says Lexie Hain, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association. “I’m hopeful this is beginning of a revolution of intelligent co-design.”

The association, formed in rural Ithaca in 2018, has been expanding. Hain has spoken at conferences as nearby as Albany, last January, and as far away (at least virtually) as Europe this fall. She’s aware that land values and terrain are different in the Finger Lakes than near the Hudson River, and that viewsheds are parsed carefully here, too. But she says, “I would love to see it happen in the Hudson Valley. I’m not going to rule it out.”

In some corners of the valley, finding shepherds close enough to a solar project to viably transport sheep from their home farm is the challenge. Nexamp is a developer with community solar arrays in the valley. It currently grazes 2 solar sites in New York State. The advantages to developers like Nexamp can be big: fewer panels damaged by rocks and mowers, reduced vegetation maintenance costs, and more community acceptance.

A sheep arrives to graze a solar site in Central New York (Photo: American Solar Grazing Association)

Next year the company will expand to grazing 12 N.Y. grazing projects, communication manager Keith Hevenor says — but none are local. “For us it’s really about finding the appropriate local farmer who’s willing and able to travel within the distance required,” Hevenor says. “It’s really just a proximity thing.”

Geographic tools have been developed to help it happen. The American Solar Grazing Association recently launched a kind of “matchmaking” tool to help sheep farmers find nearby solar developers, and vice versa.

Scenic Hudson, for its part, is eager to see agrivoltaics emerge as a win-win solution in carefully sited projects. The organization’s Solar Mapping Tool and Renewable Energy Siting Guide provide guidance for bringing it along. “These kinds of techniques can be a real solution and align agricultural policy with renewable energy policy,” says Audrey Friedrichsen, land use and environmental advocacy attorney at Scenic Hudson. “We want to see the transition to renewable energy accelerated with smart planning, because climate change is the issue of our time.”

Despite the delay compared to other areas from North Carolina to Illinois, agricultural observers like Sam Calhoun, FARM Program associate at the Columbia Land Conservancy, believe agrivoltaics is coming our way. The conservancy recently held a Solar Grazing webinar that attracted 25 participants interested in learning what the concept was all about.

“We’re aware of this and looking at it as something we’re going to be seeing more of,” Calhoun says. “We’re trying to stay ahead of it rather than having to play catch-up.”

Lynn Freehill-Maye is managing editor of Scenic Hudson’s HV Viewfinder. She is also a Hudson Valley-based sustainability writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Scientific American, Sierra, Civil Eats, CityLab, Modern Farmer and beyond.

At the Historic Bronson House, a Surprising Solar Success

Tucked in a corner of a medium-security state prison site is a little-known, rarely seen 19th-century mansion that has fascinated Hollywood filmmakers, a legendary investment banker and architectural historians.

The Oliver Bronson House in Hudson, N.Y., features elements from renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). The home serves as the earliest extant example of the Hudson River “Bracketed” architectural mode (for which Edith Wharton titled her 1929 novel). And it sits in the middle of a viewshed that gave birth to the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.

The Oliver Bronson House near Hudson, N.Y. (Photo by John Ferro)

So it comes as no surprise that plans to build a 5-megawatt solar panel installation just a few hundred yards from the home raised concerns at Historic Hudson, the nonprofit that is restoring the Bronson House and working to establish a park around it.

How that solar farm came to be is a tale of collaborative negotiations between Historic Hudson, Scenic Hudson and East Light Partners, the firm behind the solar farm.

Historic Hudson President Alan Neumann calls it “just a lovely success story of how a smart developer can work with not-for-profit organizations that oversee the cultural landscape and natural landscape at a sensitive site.”

But that success was not a given.

The tale begins in 1838, when Dr. Oliver Bronson, a physician and educator whose father was a successful banker and real estate speculator, acquired the three-story Federal style house that had once been home to Samuel Plumb, a ropemaker from Nantucket.

Bronson wanted to enhance the house and turned to someone he no doubt knew — Davis, the architect, whose primary patron happened to be Bronson’s brother-in-law. Davis is perhaps best known as the designer of the Custom House in New York City; Lyndhurst, the former Jay Gould estate, in Tarrytown, N.Y.; and Blithewood in Annandale-On-Hudson.

Davis oversaw alterations and additions in 1838 and again in 1849 that connected the house and associated outbuildings directly to the surrounding landscape, a hallmark of the Picturesque style. The term “bracketed” refers to the ornamental wooden brackets that were added to extended overhangs and balconies.

The ELP Greenport Solar project, as seen from above. (Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

A century later, all of that was virtually forgotten. The site became part of a state-run reformatory facility for girls, which in turn became what is now the Hudson Correctional Facility for men. The house served as a home for the institutions’ administrators. When the state no longer had a use for it, it was scheduled for demolition.

The house was saved, Neumann says, when Richard Jenrette, a founder of the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, personally intervened to have the home listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003. Fans of the Jason Bourne film franchise might remember the house from the rescue scene at the end of the 2012 installment, “The Bourne Legacy.”

In more recent years, Historic Hudson obtained a lease from the state for the house and 1.2 acres surrounding the structure. Though the house is not open to the public, the nonprofit has overseen $1.5 million in stabilization repairs and has been negotiating with the state to turn the larger surrounding grounds into a park, according to Neumann.

Not far from the house, just over the Hudson city line in the Town of Greenport, was a hayfield that East Light Partners saw as a perfect site for a community solar project.

“It was commercially zoned and had been sitting idle,” says East Light Partners Cofounder Wendy De Wolf.

The company entered an agreement to purchase the site in 2018 and began planning the solar farm. Scenic Hudson later acquired the portion of the property that ELP was not purchasing, mostly woodlands and a stream corridor. Scenic Hudson hopes to work with the community to eventually build a walking trail to connect Hudson to this forested land

Neumann said he became aware of the project after East Light Partners presented its plan to local government officials. The plan initially called for solar panels to be placed within direct view of Bronson House, clashing with Davis’s picturesque legacy. 

Another view of ELP Greenport Solar, near Hudson, N.Y. (Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Neumann wasn’t a fan of the initial plan.

Instead, the solar developers worked with Historic Hudson and Scenic Hudson to revise their site plan. East Light Partners embraced Scenic Hudson’s Clean Energy, Green Communities guide to siting renewable energy projects. Renderings were created to determine the visual impact of different layouts. With input from Scenic Hudson and Historic Hudson, East Light Partners reconfigured its plan so that there were no panels on the portion of the site nearest to and most easily visible from Bronson House. Additional plans call for interpretive signage — highlighting solar energy, conservation and the compatibility of the two — to be placed along the future Scenic Hudson trail.

Now supported by the two nonprofits, the revised plan received the necessary approvals and went live in the fall of 2019.

“We are all about trying to site good projects and doing it in a way that responds to the community,” De Wolf says.

Hayley Carlock, Scenic Hudson’s environmental advocacy director, said the collaborative effort brought together the full spectrum of Scenic Hudson’s skillsets and services, from land conservation and legal work to advocacy and scientific expertise. She says, “That is part of what makes Scenic Hudson so effective in what we do.”

Says Neumann: “We couldn’t be happier.”

Connecting Hudson to Nature

Offering the potential to provide new health and quality-of-life benefits for City of Hudson residents and visitors, Scenic Hudson has protected 80 acres of scenic and ecologically important land just outside the city — the first step in creating a place for people to enjoy outdoor recreation and explore nature.

Conserving the property — which features meadows, forested ravines, wetlands and numerous streams — affords future opportunities for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and birdwatching very close to Hudson’s downtown. In addition, it permanently protects views from the historic Dr. Oliver Bronson House and Estate, located on the grounds of the Hudson Correctional Facility and managed by Historic Hudson, as well as from Olana State Historic Site to the south. The property also sustains diverse wildlife.

The conserved land sits adjacent to a new community solar energy array. Solar company East Light Partners worked with Scenic Hudson to address all concerns regarding potential visual and ecological impacts of this project from the newly acquired land and the Bronson House.

The acquisition also marks a step forward in Scenic Hudson’s vision of creating a trail stretching from Hudson to Olana and across the new Hudson River Skywalk (on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge) to the Village of Catskill and the organization’s 612-acre RamsHorn-Livingston Sanctuary. To date, Scenic Hudson has protected more than 500 acres along the proposed route of the trail.

Much of this conserved acreage — including the newly acquired property — is within the watershed of South Bay Creek and Marsh, which the New York State Department of State has designated a Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat. The Town of Greenport secures drinking water from wells abutting this assemblage. In addition to supporting the ecological health of these waterbodies and the Hudson River (into which the creek flows), Scenic Hudson’s acquisitions in the South Bay Creek watershed will help to accommodate the inland migration of species whose habitats face inundation from climate-related sea level rise in the Hudson River and South Bay.

Solar Plex

Studio Sunggi Park

One of the biggest drawbacks to embracing solar energy in valley communities: Many residents find the panels unattractive. But they don’t have to be. In fact, designers have begun turning solar arrays into works of art — providing inspiration along with clean power.

One firm that’s leading the field in creativity is Studio Sunggi Park, based in Queens and South Korea. The architecture firm just won first prize in a major competition that challenged entrants to design an attraction for the downtown of a Middle East city that also would provide sufficient power to meet local needs.

Studio Sunggi Park
Studio Sunggi Park

They came up with the mesmerizing “Starlit Stratus.” During the day, its canopies turn the sun’s rays into energy, while affording shade to users of a new public park beneath them. At night, the canopies curl up and transform into balls of light. If built, it would create almost 2,500 megawatt hours (MWh) of clean energy annually. (The average home in New York utilizes about seven MWh of electricity each year.)

Wouldn’t something like this look great in one of our cities?

Solar Buzz

Solar Panels

Underhill solar farm in Poughkeepsie, which went on line in 2019, was one of New York’s first solar arrays developed expressly to include habitat for bees and other pollinator species — a win-win. It not only produces clean energy, weaning us off fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, but supports insects critical for making the valley’s crops — and the region’s agricultural economy — continue to grow. A third of the world’s food depends on pollinators, whose numbers have been declining alarmingly. In the U.S., honeybees alone contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, including Hudson Valley food favorites like apples, cherries and blueberries.

(photo courtesy of Clearway Community Solar)