TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Sustainable Tompkins is examining how land can be used to increase the output of renewable energy locally and statewide.

David Kay, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, presented information on the implications of energy transitions, renewable electricity and climate change as they pertain to economic development.

Two pieces of recent legislation of importance are the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, according to Kay, which govern the overall decarbonization of the economy and establish new rules for existing facilities that generate electricity.

“I wanted to highlight why scale matters — a lot of it has to do with the cost of development, and a lot of information comes out of the National Renewable Energy Lab showing what’s happened to the cost,” Kay said.

The state maps all solar residential projects, most of which are small scale, and of which there are more than 100,000. “In New York already and cumulatively, we have about one gigawatts of capacity in place residential,” he said.

A megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts, and 1,000 megawatts is a gigawatt. A single megawatt facility, generally speaking, can provide electricity to 100 to 200 homes, though it is dependent on the climate, weather and other conditions.

As of February 2021, there were more than 8,000 megawatts in queue with just over 3,000 already accomplished, and on a larger utility-scale is more than 5 megawatts. In New York, the place where electricity is generated is close to where it gets consumed, and the New York State Agricultural Technical Working Group (NYATWG) scores prospective parts of land on a scorecard to determine where new facilities might make sense.

“How does a megawatt translate into acreage required? There’s a lot of land involved — to get solar, you need to cover a lot of land area,” Kay said, explaining that, typically, three to seven acres are needed per megawatt.

Another point of consideration Kay discussed was “shift how much we think we’re going to need and determine whether it makes sense to electrify the economy by solar or through other technologies,” he said.

Kaitlin Stack Whitney, assistant professor of science, technology and society at the Rochester Institute of Technology, presented on utilizing roadsides for renewable energy as a way to reduce costs, raise revenue and remain sustainable.

Roadsides along highways and interstates could be ideal for the installation of renewable energy facilities for several reasons: first, the landscapes are typically already managed in a multitude of ways like mowing, herbicide application and arbor services.

“They also tend to get a lot of sunlight, and trees are intentionally cut back. People are thinking about whether or not these areas can be used to harness solar as well as other forms of renewable energy,” Whitney said.

If acreage is the only barrier to harnessing more solar energy, maintained roadsides could offer a solution. Whitney said that “There’s an estimated 10 million acres of roadside habitat […] and over half a million miles are managed by states.”

Oregon has gone this route, installing the country’s first solar highway project in 2008. Similarly, Massachusetts has installed ground-based arrays along the state’s turnpike, with the state’s website stating that “Our goal is to create energy savings by procuring electricity at a favorable rate, generate revenue by using unused state land and also support the Commonwealth’s green and clean economy.”

Challenges that Whitney presented on include substantial upfront costs that may pose challenges for planning agencies and legal constraints some states may face due to restrictions on renewable energy.

Brightfields and brownfields, closed landfills or portions of contaminated land, are other options for acreage that could be converted into land for solar arrays. In 2017, the City of Rochester broke ground on a new solar field on the seven-acre–plot of land that had previously been the Emerson Street Landfill, adding more than 7,866 solar panels in total.

Graham Savio, agriculture and horticulture issue leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, presented on agrivoltaics, the dual use of land for agriculture and solar, in New York State.

Typically, he said, agrivoltaics include crop or livestock production underneath or adjacent to an array of solar panels and are specifically designed to allow for both operations to be viable.

“You might get a slightly reduced amount of solar power coming in because you need to reduce the number of panels that you have in order to allow enough light to hit the crop underneath,” Savio said, adding that, even with that reduced number of panels, 86% more resources are produced on a single plot of land.

Something else to keep in mind with agrivoltaics is displacement value, meaning that the additional costs need to be evaluated when deciding how to have two things coexist in one place.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at