Finding Common Ground in Farms Solar Siting

On Feb 7, Waterkeepers Chesapeake’s Fair Farms Initiative along with the Choose Clean Water Coalition hosted “Finding Common Ground in Farms Solar Siting,” a webinar panel discussion. Federal funding will soon have a huge impact on solar development which will expand it dramatically in the next few decades. The majority of the new solar will be utility scale with 80% expected to be developed on agriculture land. The panel discussed solar policy that supports farmers, is good for water quality, and provides opportunities for strong local economies.

American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) Mid-Atlantic Program Manager, Amanda Cather, who facilitated the discussion, began with a brief introduction. Farming must be a key part of the climate solution, she said. And solar can play a key part in doing so if it is structured well. Alternatively, if it isn’t well structured, solar could accelerate the loss of farmland which would be very detrimental to our food system’s resiliency. Currently, half of the utility scale solar is slated for our most productive and resilient cropland, so if we do not act quickly the opportunity for farming to be a significant part of the climate solution will be lost.

AFT Smart Solar Report articulates 4 principles:

  • Incentivize dual use solar or agrivoltaics (agriculture and solar energy production in the same space)
  • Prioritize solar siting on buildings and land not well suited for farming
  • Safeguard the ability for land to be used for agriculture
  • Promote equity and farm viability

In addition, AFT produced a guidebook to solar for farming landowners who lease their land.

Luke Smith, Ci Renewables Vice President, described the opportunity for both economic viability and environmental sustainability through dual use agrivoltaics, although there are also challenges. For example, Ci Renewables must compete on pricing against dirty energy, and so rooftops, which are twice as expensive to build on, are an issue. Many counties want solar, but don’t understand these siting issues.

Arjun Makhijani, President of Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, highlighted his research which concludes that implementing solar on 20% or less of a farm can help farm economics. In fact, it doubles the whole farm’s profit because electricity is worth more than commodities. In addition, profit from solar is resilient (in that it is not impacted by climate change), and that stability could enable more farm investment.

With the right policy and incentives, Arjun said, dual use agrivoltaics can:

  • Strengthen farm profits and economic resilience
  • Improve soil health and provide other ecosystem services
  • Diversify food production
  • Strengthen rural communities and economies
  • Provide opportunities for economic justice

Finally, Sam White of Leaning Pine Farm described how Germany developed alternative dual use solar systems as a way to overcome their limited land use. Examples include bifacial solar panels that can also be used as fencing for cattle; and solar panels high enough to provide as much shade as high tunnels which, in a time of climate change, can be vital.

All panelists concluded that for solar to be economically helpful for a farm, it should be dual use agrivoltaics and should be limited to 20% of a farm’s land.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake’s Fair Farms is very grateful to all participants and attendees, in particular the legislators who attended. The full webinar can be viewed at this link.