Brookhaven proposes land-clearing ban for solar energy projects

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By Michaela Kilgallen and Christopher Cameron

A zoning code change in the Town of Brookhaven that will be debated on tomorrow could prohibit the clearing of trees and vegetation to install ground-mounted solar panels.

The amendment to the town’s Solar Energy Production Code, proposed by Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, would prevent lands cleared after January 2016 from being used for solar farms. The proposal would also let commercial and industrial businesses zoned under certain categories implement larger solar panels.

“We don’t have a lot of green space on Long Island, and we’re getting less and less of it each year,” Romaine said. “I’m a great believer of preserving green space and natural habitats.”

A public hearing to discuss the proposal is set for Sept. 29. Romaine expects the proposal to pass unanimously.

Solar power is on the rise across the country, but exactly how to implement the technology has been under debate within the community of Brookhaven.

In June, National Grid proposed a $100 million solar farm at the former Shoreham nuclear power plant. The proposal was met with opposition from community members and environmental activists against the tree removal associated with the project.

“They wanted to clear 300 acres,” Romaine said. “This is a coastal forest preserve and should not be disturbed.”

A few months earlier in March, a proposal for another solar farm in Mastic was put before the Town of Brookhaven planning board. The project was also criticized for the required tree removal.

“I’m not a huge fan of solar farms,” SUNation Co-founder and Chief of Sales Mike Bailis said. “I think that there’s a tremendous amount of rooftops that we should be putting solar on before we start putting them on the ground.”

Although the amendment has support, Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning is concerned that there should be even more done to prevent the clearing of land.

“I support the Town position on preventing the clearing of land for solar, but I am not sure that it can prohibit the clearing for other development,” Browning said. “Clearing of land for solar should not be a first choice.”

Much of Brookhaven opposed the solar farms, but 80 homeowners have implemented solar paneling on their residences as part of the Brookhaven Solarize Campaign with SUNation.

Long Island has 35,000 residential solar installations, according to a press release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The installations are estimated to save 200,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, equivalent to the carbon offset of 180,000 acres of forest.

“Every south facing roof not shaded by trees should ultimately be fueled with some sort of energy device,” sustainability professor at Stony Brook Harold J. Quigley said.

The Clean Energy Standard commitment, signed by Cuomo, calls for 50 percent of electricity in New York to be sourced from renewable means including solar by 2030. The Town of Brookhaven also plans to implement solar on municipal buildings like the public library.

“Solar projects are useful for buildings of all types as solar is a clean, renewable energy source,” Dayle Zatlin, New York State Energy Research & Development Authority, said. “Everyone can play a role in helping the state achieve this goal.”

Local businesses have already taken the first steps toward more environmentally sustainable business models. Clare Rose, a beer distribution company in Yaphank, generates 90 percent of its power from a 1.5-megawatt rooftop solar array.

“I think people would be surprised how economically viable it can be in the long term,” Clare Rose President and CEO Sean Rose said.

With the proposed amendment, the Town of Brookhaven aims to develop more solar arrays like the one at Clare Rose.