Zhang helps NYS to go solar, avoid land-use conflicts

Solar power will be a key to New York achieving its mandated climate goals of obtaining most of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and having carbon-free electricity by 2040. And fulfilling these goals could require large swaths of cleared farmland for immense, land-intensive solar projects.

Max Zhang, a professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has been awarded a 2 ½-year, approximately $200,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for work aimed at determining efficient solar farm array configurations to avoid land-use conflicts or spoiling precious agricultural space.

Cornell impacting New York State

Zhang, also a fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, believes the U.S. is in a period of “rapid energy transition,” from carbon-based to renewable.

“By looking at history, we’ve seen energy transition before,” he said. “A few centuries ago, we used wood, and then coal and later we used oil. So, right now we’re moving away from carbon energy at breakneck speed into green energy. Siting utility-scale solar energy projects throughout New York will become a major challenge that inevitably policymakers must face.”

Before New York’s 2040 target date for obtaining carbon-free electricity is met, state law requires that a minimum of 6 gigawatts of distributed solar energy must be constructed by 2025. This means installing solar arrays of up to seven acres of land per megawatt.

In New York, where can one obtain 42,000 acres of land to absorb solar energy? Future projects may be plotted on farmland, which is flat and easily accessible for construction vehicles.

Zhang’s team will monitor 10 representative solar farm sites throughout New York to examine microclimates, solar radiation, temperature and soil moisture to see whether agriculture and energy development – so-called “argrivoltaics” – can coexist.

Studies in the western U.S. have found that photovoltaic site designs can adjust for intensity, spectral distribution and duration of shading, to achieve optimal power generation without diminishing agricultural output. Similar studies have been extremely rare in the eastern U.S., Zhang said.

“We want to provide a scientific basis to guide future utility-scale solar  development in New York State,” Zhang said. He hopes to engage policymakers, solar developers, farmers, local officials and community organizers to effectively disseminate the research findings.

Through collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Zhang and his group will share the findings and ideas on how to promote low-impact solar development.

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Lindsey Knewstub