Solar Projects on Farmland a “Hot-Button” Topic in Pa.
The combination of agriculture and solar energy production is an emerging topic among state and local government officials, as well as farmers and their neighbors.
Michael Roth, policy director and director of conservation and innovation for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, explained some of the challenges and benefits of the “hot-button issue” of utility-scale solar development on farmland during the CEPM’s recent webinar, “And On His Farm He Had…A Photovoltaic System? Where Solar and Farming Meet”.
Utility-scale solar differs from the most common form, net-metered solar, where homeowners and businesses install solar panels that are connected to the grid to meet their energy needs while selling excess solar energy to the power company. In utility-scale solar, a large amount of acreage is needed to install rows of solar panels that provide more than 1 megawatt of power that goes directly to the electrical grid and is sold to electric companies using a purchase agreement.
Utility-scale electricity usually involves a long-term lease for the land that is used for the solar installation. Roth explained that farmland is in demand for such projects because it is cleared and flat, making it cheaper and easier to develop. About 80 percent of utility-scale projects are proposed for farmland while 15 percent are proposed for reclaimed land, such as brownfields.
Roth said there is concern about farmland being lost, primarily due to “the insidious nature of low-density development,” or residential sprawl into rural areas. He noted that while Pennsylvania ranks first in the nation in farmland preservation, with 600,000 acres under permanent easements, the state has lost the same about of farmland in the past 10 years to development.
He said there are both benefits and drawbacks to utility-scale solar on farmland apart from the benefit to the climate. A solar array does not “cement over” land, meaning it is still functional, and there is a low risk to soil and water. But it does change the ways it can be used for agriculture, with the presence of panels influencing its use, as well as shade from panels providing a microclimate that might change the types of use or crop.
While a utility-scale project can provide a farmer with a way to diversify the income stream while allowing the land to remain under his or her ownership, it also usually requires a large surface area and a long-term lease agreement of 25 or 30 years, limiting what can be done with the property. In addition, large solar projects have met with opposition from community members who find them undesirable in rural areas.
Roth noted that utility-scale solar is not permitted on land in the farmland preservation program, which pays owners for a permanent easement to keep land for agricultural use, and there is a penalty for properties enrolled in the Clean and Green Program, which provides a tax break for agricultural property. In response to questions, he said the requirements for those programs are set by the state Legislature.
The state has developed solar best practices guidance, and the Department of Agriculture will soon be releasing its best practices for farmland, he said. However, presently the decision of whether to permit utility-scale solar rests with the local government. That may change, as the Legislature is expected to take up the issue of siting for solar development in the next legislative session, he said.
In the meantime, Roth urged farmers considering leasing land for such a project to carefully evaluate the time span involved, and seek legal advice to avoid predatory leasing terms. He also urged them to “self-advocate” with the lessee to let them know what types of uses they still want for the property. In addition, make sure decommissioning of the site is spelled out clearly.
The Department of Agriculture urges farmers to avoid the most productive soils for such projects, instead using areas that are too wet or dry. In addition, he urges leaseholders to “make every effort to meet the needs of the farmer.”