Can solar developers and farmers find common ground?

Clashes over siting of solar projects are happening across the U.S., but collaboration is also taking root in many areas.
By Andy Kowalczyk

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The U.S. will need a lot of new solar to decarbonize the grid, and that’s going to take a lot of land — including some land now used for farming.

This issue is triggering disagreement within the agriculture sector. Some farmers see solar development as a way to bolster their incomes and maximize the value of their land, while others view it as a threat to their livelihoods and communities.

The potential for land-use conflicts has spurred state governments across the U.S. to turn their attention toward rules that address the installation of solar on farmland. A key issue for many is the question of local or state officials should ultimately bear the responsibility of approving solar projects and their selected sites.

Hot debate in the Pelican State

Louisiana, which recently set climate goals, is one state where the issue of solar being situated on farmland is being fiercely debated. Parties on both sides of the issue aired their concerns about solar development rules in recent hearings in the state capital of Baton Rouge. The hearings were prompted by the June passage of SB 185, a bill that directs the state Department of Natural Resources to develop rules for solar siting and end-of-life decommissioning of solar installations.

Major agriculture interests in the state have raised questions about whether solar developers should be eligible for key industrial tax breaks. Others said they were worried about the potential for polluted runoff of pesticides used for vegetation management at solar facilities and the impact of chemicals from solar panels if they are eventually abandoned in fields.

Stephen Wright, executive director of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industry Association, said after the hearings that the most likely outcome from SB 185 is that local governments in Louisiana will continue to have some control over determining how they want neighboring solar facilities to be owned, maintained and decommissioned. To ensure that rules are predictable and fair to local communities, the association is working on model solar siting rules for municipalities across the state.

But not all parties to the debate in Louisiana accept the premise that solar development is good for the state.

I thought we were an oil and gas state the whole time I’ve been here,” Republican State Sen. Beth Mizell said recently. If we’re choosing solar over oil and gas, nobody’s told me.”

Yet even oil and gas companies recognize the opportunities to develop solar in Louisiana. Lightsource bp, which is 50% owned by oil and gas giant BP, recently unveiled plans to develop a 300-megawatt solar farm outside Baton Rouge, the largest project announced in the state so far. The company is one of many redefining what it means to be an energy state.

How much land are we talking about?

One of the key concerns raised by agricultural interests is that solar growth could crowd out productive farmland. But how much land would be affected?

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has tallied 462 gigawatts of large-scale solar projects in the interconnection queues of the country’s seven transmission grid operators and 35 large utilities, meaning they’ve submitted an application for interconnection but have not yet firmly committed to being built. That’s more than eight times as much utility-scale solar as is already in operation in the U.S., where nearly 55 gigawatts are currently online.

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that 1 megawatt of solar requires 8.3 acres of land. Using these figures, building out the amount of solar in U.S. interconnection queues would require roughly 3.8 million acres. That’s a considerable amount of land, but roughly half of the 7.4 million acres occupied by oil and gas operations across the country, according to a 2015 study in the journal Science. (What’s more, solar development has been shown to be more compatible with agriculture than oil and gas development.)

Still, to meet the country’s annual power needs with renewables by 2050, we’ll need much more land dedicated to large-scale solar over the coming decades. The recent Net-Zero America report from researchers at Princeton estimated that the U.S. could require up to 16 million acres for solar facilities — roughly 2% of the total acreage currently dedicated to farming.

Local vs. state control

Concerns about solar siting are often local in nature, leading to tension between local officials and state leaders. Legislation and regulation on siting vary widely across the country, from states like Louisiana that are leaning toward local control to those like Florida, where the governor recently signed a bill that makes solar facilities a permitted use on agricultural land.

This spring, Indiana lawmakers debated HB 1381, which sought to establish state guidelines that would relax some restrictive siting rules established by local governments. The Indiana General Assembly rejected the bill in April after tense negotiations, despite the addition of an amendment to allow legacy local siting rules to stay in place.

The Great Plains Institute works with local governments to develop model solar ordinances across the states of Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy and the nonprofit Energy Foundation. The Great Plains Institute recently partnered with Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute to publish Model Solar Ordinance for Indiana Local Governments.” The report outlines both broad and specific best practices that provide the flexibility needed for local governments to adapt to solar farm siting while addressing local concerns.

Oregon, which recently passed a bill setting a 2040 deadline for decarbonizing its electricity sector, makes solar siting decisions through the state-level Energy Facility Siting Council. Though there is a lot of support for renewable energy development in the state, significant clashes with landowners over big solar projects have persisted. After considerable backlash from some rural landowners, an application from developer Hecate Energy to build a solar project on 2,733 acres of land permitted for natural-gas exploration 20 years ago currently hangs in the balance with the siting council.

A sustainable path forward for solar siting

While some states have seen solar growth stymied by land-use disputes, other states have made positive headway.

With 14.1 gigawatts of utility-scale solar, California is far ahead of the rest of the country in terms of installed capacity. But the state has also seen its share of disputes with environmental groups over solar projects seen as damaging to sensitive habitats.

California’s San Joaquin Valley is one of the country’s most productive and valuable stretches of agricultural land, making it ripe for an investigation into how solar can share the land with agricultural neighbors.

A report released in 2016 identified low-conflict areas where solar facilities could potentially be sited in the valley, after bringing together stakeholders representing farmland and rangeland, environmental conservation, Native tribes and the solar industry. In these stakeholder groups, open-source digital mapping tools were used to identify roughly 470,000 acres of land best suited for solar development that likely would not engender significant conflict.

Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Solar development also offers an alternative drought-resistant crop” for San Joaquin Valley farmlands harmed by the overpumping of groundwater and deposits of crop-killing salts and toxins from inadequately drained irrigation. A 670-megawatt utility-scale solar farm is currently being built by developer CIM Group — the first phase of a 2.7-gigawatt facility that will ultimately sprawl across roughly 20,000 acres in the region. This is an astonishing size for a solar farm, but it still only represents 4% of the total low-conflict land area identified by the report on the San Joaquin Valley.

Farmers in other parts of the U.S., sometimes facing declining prices for their crops, are also turning to solar as a drought-resistant and low-maintenance alternative that can earn $500 to $1,000 per acre annually through a solar lease arrangement.

As climate change escalates, drought and other extreme weather impacts can be expected to cause more U.S. farmland to go fallow, creating additional opportunities for clean energy production that does not displace active farm operations.

Other kinds of agriculture-friendly solar farms have also been documented in recent years. Many success stories have featured solar pollinator projects, which co-locate solar facilities with native plants and honeybee colonies. This integration of land uses provides additional benefits: When pollinator populations are boosted, it helps nearby farms whose crops require pollination.

Local outreach is crucial

Siting rules vary widely across the U.S., but no matter the location, savvy solar developers have one strategy in common: They engage local stakeholders early and often. Ensuring that nearby farmers, landowners and community members have a voice in the process from the beginning seems to be a recipe for success.

Silicon Ranch, a Nashville, Tenn.-based solar developer, pioneered and expanded utility-scale solar in a host of rural counties in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, providing the company with the opportunity to help a number of counties adopt responsible, balanced solar siting rules.

In Georgia, for instance, Silicon Ranch worked with several counties to institute a model solar ordinance developed by Georgia Tech in collaboration with a broad set of stakeholders that is structured to ensure the appropriate balance of diverse and important interests,” said Luke Wilkinson, the company’s senior vice president of project development.

This balance has been at the core of Silicon Ranch’s latest venture, Regenerative Energy — a model for solar development based on mixing agricultural land use with solar energy production. Along with the obvious benefits of combining agricultural and energy production, there is the added plus of creating long-term, good-paying jobs for both electricians and land managers.

Managing solar lands regeneratively to restore ecosystems while reducing the overall operational costs is key to looking holistically at a solar energy project,” said Michael Baute, director of Regenerative Energy. There is a technical asset, the plant, housed on a biological asset, the land. Managing our biological assets with livestock not only creates new jobs in the solar industry but also creates additional indirect jobs downstream in the local agricultural economy and regional food system.”

Engaging in efforts like this to build better relationships and communicate the shared benefits of solar could be a powerful strategy for developers in coming years, laying a firm foundation for the Biden administration’s goal of reaching 100% carbon-free energy by 2035.

The solar industry is looking to put down significant long-term roots” in Louisiana, said Wright of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association. In order to do that, it is essential we be good stewards of local land and thoughtful neighbors. In return, we hope local residents and policymakers join us with open minds and good intentions.” That’s an approach that could foster solar growth all around the country.

(Lead photo: Gunnar Ridderström/Unsplash)

Andy Kowalczyk is a consultant based in New Orleans who works on clean energy issues within the MISO footprint as well as local and state utility regulatory issues throughout MISO South.