Hecate Energy, a renewable energy developer, had hoped to install a 500-acre solar farm in Copake, New York, a quiet town nestled between the Catskill and Berkshire mountains. The setting was ideal because of its proximity to an electrical substation, critical to the power transmission.
But after facing an outcry from some in the community who feared the installation would mar the bucolic setting, Hecate scaled back its plans.
"We heard loud and clear," said Diane Sullivan, Hecate's senior vice president for environmental and permitting. "People felt that the project was too large, and they wanted us to shrink it down."
Hecate cut the size of the planned development to 245 acres, which it says will still produce the 60 megawatts of electricity in the original design.
The Copake fight mirrors similar battles raging in rural areas like Lake County, Oregon; Clinton County, Ohio; and Troy, Texas. Developers say industrial-scale solar farms are needed to meet the nation's goals to mitigate the rise of climate change, but locals are fighting back against what they see as an encroachment on their pastoral settings, the loss of agricultural land and a decline in property values.
Until recently, most farms were built in the West, where abundant sunshine powers industrial-scale solar arrays and installations were farther away from sight lines. But now, with federal and state governments committing to a reduction in fossil fuels, joined by corporate giants like Amazon and Microsoft, the industry is seeking solar installations in areas where the calculus is more complicated.
In the first half of this year alone, developers installed 5.7 gigawatts of solar capacity, for a total of 108.7 gigawatts of capacity, sufficient to reach 18.9 million U.S. homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
"Typically, 5 to 7 acres are needed to create 1 megawatt of power," said Matt Birchby, co-founder and president of Swift Current Energy, a solar developer that is working on a proposal for Clark County, Kentucky.
Finding appropriate sites with sufficient sunlight, proximity to the grid and up-to-date infrastructure is challenging.
Approximately 0.5% of U.S. land would need to be covered with solar panels to achieve the decarbonization goals proposed by the Biden administration in April. Urban settings usually lack enough space for significant projects; as a result, 90% of the suitable land sits in rural areas.