Policy Notes: July 2023
Agrivoltaics may provide an opportunity for quick climate action, while other climate amendments are still slow to materialize.
Climate Committee Discusses Agrivoltaics
Progress to address climate change in the Pinelands CMP continues at a slow pace; this is not expected to improve in the near future, as the Commission’s request for a budget increase that would have allowed them to hire a dedicated climate coordinator was not granted in the recently finalized state budget. The Commission plans to ‘make do’ with what they have but have little staff capacity available to accomplish much in addition to their basic regulatory functions.
However, an opportunity for quick action has materialized that the state’s Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has already been developing – allowing the dual-use of farmland for agrivoltaics. This technology combines solar power generation with agricultural or horticultural production. At this month’s meeting of the Pinelands Commission’s Climate Committee, the BPU and Light Star Renewables, LLC gave a presentation on the compatibility of solar renewable energy development with agricultural production, and the feasibility of a dual-use program.
New Jersey has a goal of installing 17 GW of solar power by 2035; despite the large number of solar panels that are already visible on rooftops and fields, we’re only about a quarter of the way to achieving the state’s goal. Using farmland to simultaneously meet our regional demands for energy and food production can help limit the conversion of land for single-use solar farms—a high priority for a state like NJ where developable land is in short supply.
Agrivoltaics have been shown to offer a range of additional benefits for crops and the farmers who produce them. There is the potential to increase crop production by up to 70% as well as reduce water use by 30%. Shade provided by solar panels can enhance the climate stability for plants growing underneath by establishing a microclimate that conserves soil moisture. These can also be used to protect crops from harsh weather by adjusting the angles of the panels—which has been a crucial feature for farmers maintaining their crops during searing heatwaves. Shade provided by agrivoltaics can also improve the well-being of agricultural workers, who face increasingly unsafe working conditions in a warming climate. This arrangement can also improve financial stability for the whole farming operation, as the landowner receives lease payments and funds that are usually dedicated to ‘vegetation management’ (i.e. mowing the grass underneath solar arrays) can be provided to farmworkers as a stipend instead.
The BPU is collaborating with Rutgers University to finalize a pilot project that would study the implementation of agrivoltaics in the geographical context of New Jersey. Although this technology has been demonstrated to be successful elsewhere, it is important to gather NJ-specific data to optimize the implementation of this technology for NJ crops. For example, a representative for Light Star Renewables, LLC said that blueberries are a particularly good candidate for agrivoltaics, but farmers in Maine have experienced decreased yields. What effect might shade have on blueberries grown in the much hotter climate of the NJ Pinelands? Before we can find out, the Pinelands Commission will need to address its current restrictions regarding solar facilities: protections that were originally placed to prevent Pinelands farmland from being converted into solar farms will prohibit Pinelands farmers from participating in the pilot program. Commissioners and staff recognized the urgent need to amend the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, or to somehow grant waivers for dual-use projects, to ensure that blueberry and cranberry farms in the Pinelands do not get left behind.
You can show your support for the participation of Pinelands farmers in the pilot program by submitting a comment to the Pinelands Commission. The Board of Public Utilities anticipates releasing a straw proposal and will seek feedback from the public to inform the final version; we will provide more information on this in future blog posts and action alerts.
Pinelands Municipal Council Watch
Months Since the Council Last Met: 10
Recently, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance has been making efforts to restore the Pinelands Municipal Council (PMC). This council is responsible for uniting leaders of various townships to discuss various environmental concerns and enact plans for improvement. The council has not met since September 2022. The PPA hopes to bring this council back and increase its efficiency and strength; you can read last month’s blog post for more background on the situation.
A PPA intern called the municipal office of every Pinelands town listed on 2019 attendance records for the council to gauge their current awareness and opinion of the council. We were often met with confusion by borough administrators, many of whom were unaware of this council and could not provide further details, such as the identity of the current representative. On the rare occasion that we were provided with a contact, we sent emails asking these representatives three questions: Did you attend meetings last year? How long did you represent your town in the council? Do you think the municipal council is important?
Some towns claimed that they have never had a PMC representative, despite records from past meetings showing this to not be the case. Although council activity took a hit during the pandemic, it wasn’t exactly flourishing beforehand. Attendance records from 2019 show that nearly half of towns did not send a representative to a single meeting. Two of the six meetings had insufficient attendees to make quorum.
Warehouse ordinances discussed at the Pinelands Commission and beyond
Not all warehouses are created equal in terms of their environmental and quality-of-life impact; however, most existing zoning laws fail to differentiate between them. An ordinance seeking to address some aspects of the problem in Winslow township (O-2023-006) was certified at the last Pinelands Commission meeting. The ordinance formally defines fives types of warehouses (distribution, fulfillment warehouse/center, last-mile fulfillment facilities, high-cube warehouse, truck terminal) and prohibits the warehouse/center, high-cube warehouses, and truck terminal type warehouses from being sited in certain major commercial districts.
Other towns have been trying to make similar reforms; a planning/zoning board meeting in Pemberton Township (6/26 meeting audio can be found here) featured a fascinating (but complicated!) discussion of how these issues can be addressed via ordinance or the master plan review process. A recent article forecasts that the onslaught of new warehouses in South Jersey may be slowing down in the near future.
Zoning reforms occurring at the municipal level are a good start, but should be complemented by regional planning efforts since the environmental and quality-of-life impacts associated with these do not respect municipal boundaries; PPA has been urging the Pinelands Commission to take more of a leadership role on this issue.
For residents who want to play a more active role on this issue, check out resources provided by the NJ League of Conservation Voters, such as their webinar series, a petition to move relevant bills in the NJ legislature, and a new Discord channel to connect concerned residents.
What we’re hearing from Pinelands residents and visitors:
- Atco Speedway closure: The ¼ racetrack for drag racing was suddenly closed after decades of operation. Residents expressed concerns that the plot would be converted into a junkyard; the fate of the property is still a mystery, as there is no active application at the Pinelands Commission. The track was constructed on wetlands, and ends mere feet from a river; since it was constructed before the Pinelands Protection Act, the property was grandfathered into its current use. Some residents expressed an interest in having the land preserved with some historical markers. The land is directly adjacent to the Pinelands Preservation Area, where the strictest Pinelands rules are prescribed.
- Illegal tree removal: Residents were troubled to see tree removal in a riparian zone where the Rancocas Creek flows through Freedom Park in Medford, for which the town did not receive the requisite permits from the Pinelands Commission.