Suffolk Closeup: Sacrificing green for green

That’s what cutting down woodland and using farmland to erect solar power systems is about.

We have solar panels on our more than century-old saltbox house and it is marvelous seeing the utility meter going backwards as the panels generate plentiful electricity. But in this area and elsewhere there is a push to clear forests and exploit agricultural land for solar systems — sacrificing green for green.

The forests that would be eliminated provide a home for many animal species and birds, they absorb carbon dioxide, provide aquifer protection and places for people to find peace and recreation.

Using farmland — the most precious of all land — for solar facilities is outrageous.

An especially outrageous example of this in Suffolk involves the most historic farm in all the county, the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center in Yaphank, and a push by some county officials to erect a massive solar system on 25 acres of agricultural land there.

The Suffolk County Farm is that beautiful plot you see just to the south of the Long Island Expressway west of the William Floyd Parkway exit.

It’s a living testimony to what all of Long Island once was, and much of it still is. Suffolk remains one of the top counties in the state in value of its agricultural produce. The county’s pioneering Farmland Preservation Program, initiated in 1974 and since emulated around the U.S., is emblematic of Suffolk’s commitment to save farmland.

The Suffolk County Farm was an adjunct to the county’s almshouse or poorhouse that opened in 1872, the land used by indigent residents to grow their own food. Since 1974, it’s been operated by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County as, notes the state’s “I Love NY” website, “A model farm education facility and also a real working farm.” It’s a tourist attraction, and so important for youngsters in Suffolk, particularly those from suburban communities, where they can visit and learn about animals and how food is grown.

The farm is not very large, a little over 200 acres in total. The proposed solar project would go up on this earth, be run by a private company and send electricity to county offices in Yaphank.

Fortunately, the Suffolk County Council on Environmental Quality, established in 1970 as the environmental watchdog of county government, tabled action last month on the bid to use the farm for a solar facility. The application will come back this month. Among the issues: the farmland on which the solar panels would be placed was specifically put in a category of protected farmland by the county in 2003.

The push to build the solar facility at the Suffolk County Farm comes amid other “utility-scale” solar schemes in Suffolk, among them, a 72-megawatt set-up for which 350 acres of coastal forest in Shoreham would be destroyed, and a 9.5 megawatt facility on 60 acres of a sod farm also in Shoreham. Meanwhile, in Brookhaven and Riverhead towns, laws have been enacted barring large-scale solar facilities on farmland.

Solar is a stupendous energy source. As Reuters reported last week: “Solar power is on pace for the first time this year to contribute more new electricity to the grid than will any other form of energy.”

Inventor Thomas Edison is credited with saying nearly a century ago: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!” And that was way before solar panels. Their ability to convert sunlight into electricity has skyrocketed in recent decades, while their costs have plummeted. Solar is now totally economic. And the sun doesn’t send bills.

There are hundreds of thousands of houses on Long Island with roofs that could provide usable platforms for solar power. There are the tops of thousands of industrial buildings where solar panels could be placed. There is an ocean of parking lots where solar panels can be installed. The solar panels at the parking lots at Suffolk government’s Hauppauge and Riverhead centers point to that.

Solar panels are being placed on highway medians and along highway right-of-ways.

There are roads aplenty on Long Island.

Many “disturbed” locations in Suffolk are suitable for solar. There are, indeed, many, many acceptable sites. Woodland and agricultural land must not be sacrificed.

As Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine, who as a county legislator long-represented Shelter Island, has declared: “We must not trade green for green especially when one of those greens is money and not the environment.”

grossman_karl150The author is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.

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