Solar Panels or Trees? Municipalities Are Faced With an Environmental Dilemma!

By Linda Miller

Through the 2020 addition of a Solar Power Generation Systems and Facilities section to the zoning code, Yorktown has shown its commitment to the important task of encouraging alternate energy sources to address the dire issue of climate change. 

Approving large-scale commercial solar farms, however, comes at a cost to another important environmental resource: Trees.

As of last month, substantially more than 1,000 trees on residentially zoned properties will have to be cut down to make way for five proposed large-scale commercial solar farms ranging in size from 2.87 acres to 15.9 acres.

  • Two plans will clear-cut a total of 25 acres of woodlands, 638 trees on 9.1 acres and an undisclosed number on 15.9 acres.
  • Two plans, on mostly cleared pasture or farmland, will cut down a total 255 trees, 187 on 6.5 acres and 87 on 2.87 acres. (A solar farm on a pasture that required removing only one tree has already been approved by the Planning Board.)
  • The fifth plan is on 15 acres of a former dairy farm that hasn’t been in operation for decades. Part of the site is cleared but the number of trees to be removed has not, as yet, been determined.

Solar or trees? Yorktown needs to strike a better balance between two important, but conflicting, goals.

Yorktown has a Tree and Woodland Preservation Law, which clearly expresses the town’s commitment to preserve trees and woodlands for the many valuable functions they perform. Of course, one of these important functions is the sequestration of carbon dioxide.

Indeed, trees and woodlands are crucial allies in our fight against climate change. However, it’s usually argued that solar panels are the better land use because by replacing fossil fuel they keep more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than can be sequestered by an equal area of trees. But this argument disregards other environmental functions of trees and woodlands.

  • Stabilizing the soil to reduce the risk of erosion into our backyards, watercourses and drainage channels.
  • Promoting groundwater recharge, a vital function for wetlands and for homeowners who rely on wells for their water.
  • Slowing stormwater runoff to prevent street flooding and icing and to save the town thousands of dollars in drainage infrastructure.
  • Providing cool microclimates which can reduce air conditioning costs.
  • Providing wildlife habitats that help maintain biodiversity, crucial to ecosystem stability.
  • Filtering out pollutants in the air, such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.
  • Absorbing noise.
  • Adding to the intrinsic aesthetic value of our neighborhoods, which in turn, enhances our property values.

Solar panels do none of these things. They convert solar radiation to electricity without emitting carbon dioxide. Period.

So how does Yorktown’s solar law reconcile the loss of tree and woodland environmental functions with our need for the clean energy solar panels provide?

On paper, the solar law recognizes the environmental importance of the town’s open spaces, naturalized areas and rural character, and it establishes priorities for three types of locations for solar installations:

  1. On agricultural or greenfield properties in areas that are presently cleared.
  2. On commercial properties over roofs and parking areas.
  3. On vacant parcels that are currently in a naturalized state.

The second priority is being successfully addressed, e.g., the parking lot canopy projects at IBM and the Granite Knolls sports complex, and the rooftop installation at the Jefferson Valley Mall. These projects are win-win situations – clean electricity with no trees lost. 

But the solar law falls short regarding projects on the first and third priorities – agricultural land with trees or land in a natural state. Projects proposing to cut down more than 1,000 trees on these locations, including current applications before the Planning Board, need a very hard look toward maintaining a balance between the benefits of solar farms and the functions of trees and woodlands. But the solar law doesn’t require this.

Except for a landscaping requirement, the only environmental provision in the solar law is the requirement to compare the amount of carbon sequestration from the trees to be removed and the reduction in the use of fossil fuels by generating the same amount of electricity using solar energy. This isn’t enough.

Strangely, the solar law doesn’t require consideration of the other ecological functions of trees and woodlands, even though this is a requirement of the Tree and Woodland Preservation Law under which tree permits are granted.

Kudos to the Planning Board for requiring that some, but not all, solar farm applicants will have to pay for the town’s newly-hired environmental consultant to review the environmental impacts, other than carbon sequestration, of their proposed plans. But that review is optional, not mandatory. And, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and it remains to be seen exactly what the environmental consultant will be asked to review. Will the Conservation Board and the Tree Conservation Advisory Commission be given an opportunity to provide input into the consultant’s scope of work? Or the public, especially the homeowners in the vicinity of proposed solar farms?

Solar farms and trees. Let’s be smart about recognizing that we need a balance of both. Let’s give serious thought to how the process for evaluating solar farm projects can and should be amended and fine-tuned to protect a vital natural resource while taking advantage of clean energy technology.    

Linda Miller is a former environmental consultant, professor of environmental science and Yorktown Conservation Board member.

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