When harrow met solar: U.S. land-use competition heats up

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 28 January 2019 12:00 GMT

Solar panels sit on an experimental “dual use” agricultural plot in May 2018 at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, USA. Handout photo by River Strong

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Historically, farmland could be used for solar or for farming - not both. But that could change

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nathan L'Etoile and Caroline Taylor are both passionate about preserving farmland, but they differ over a question being posed across the United States: should farmers devote some, or even all, of their land to solar energy?

In recent years, the country has experienced a solar boom: installed capacity last year reached 60 gigawatts, up from about 9GW a decade ago, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

It expects this figure will more than double in the next five years, with about 14GW being installed annually.

For a start, that means much more land will be needed: under a scenario that sees solar reach 1,618GW by 2050, the government estimates a total of 6.6 million acres (2.7 million hectares) will be required by 2050 - roughly the size of Massachusetts.

By comparison, the country's capacity from all sources in 2017 was about 1,100GW, according to the Energy Information Administration, a government body. Coal and natural gas accounted for about 64 percent of that total.

Flat, undeveloped tracts that enjoy plenty of sun are in growing demand, said L'Etoile, whose family farms 250 acres in Massachusetts and has been approached repeatedly by solar developers - who to date have been unsuccessful.

"We only have so much land, and we all have our own idea of the best use of that land," L'Etoile told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Further south in Maryland - where Taylor lives – the state government has pledged that a quarter of the electricity sold by local utilities will come from renewables by 2020; legislation underway could see that double by 2030.

Although Taylor supports those goals, she heads a group called the Montgomery Countryside Alliance that works with a nationally recognised agricultural reserve — 93,000 acres located just miles from Washington, D.C.

The reserve was zoned in the 1980s to protect farmland and agriculture. She fears that it is increasingly under threat as state laws look to boost solar generation.

"We're concerned that industry will want to come look for arable land - it's the easiest way to go," she said, adding that last year the alliance fought off one legislative attempt to allow large-scale solar projects within the reserve.

Taylor said more research was needed on how to combine solar with farming. She is also concerned at the U.S.'s "scattershot" approach to renewables, saying legislators should come up with a comprehensive plan for achieving clean-energy goals.

A beekeeper attends to hives located outside of a “pollinator-friendly” solar array in St. Joseph, Minnesota, USA, in August 2018. Handout photo by Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

DUAL USE

L'Etoile's family grows turf, as well as hops and grain that they mill and sell to local restaurants and bakeries. He said the area had some of the country's best soil - which is one reason his family has turned down solar developers.

"We have emotional ties to the land ... and we feel it's important that they stay in agriculture," he said.

Historically, he said, farmland could be used for solar or for farming - not both. But that could change.

In August, Massachusetts began a programme to push farmers and the solar industry to work together: tiered incentives under which "dual use" projects were eligible for about 50 percent more financial assistance, L'Etoile said.

This includes projects that combine solar arrays with active agriculture. Typically that means placing solar panels high off the ground, and spacing them to ensure crops can grow beneath. Research suggests that works, he said.

The L'Etoile family estimates a 20-year solar lease would bring in $10-15,000 per acre over that time, in addition to the revenue the land continued to generate from farming. That would help the farm and bolster rural economies, L'Etoile said.

But, like Taylor, the implications of what looks to be easy money worry him. He also works for an advocacy group - the American Farmland Trust - that last year found more than 31 million acres of farmland were lost to development between 1992 and 2012, double previous estimates.

"It's an easy path to just convert farms to solar. Many people say that solar is only a 20-year thing, that the land can always go back to agriculture," L'Etoile said.

But, he said, that reversion generally did not happen.

His family has not applied for state subsidies, but they are talking to developers knowing they could produce solar energy and crops on the same land at the same time.

"It's not a binary choice ... maybe we can balance."

Solar panels sit on an experimental “dual use” agricultural plot in May 2018 at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, USA. Handout photo by River Strong.

BEES AND LIVESTOCK

Other collaborative models are also springing up.

In 2016, Minnesota passed legislation requiring new solar development to say whether it was "pollinator friendly". Rather than building the solar array on a gravel bed, developers plant the area with perennial flowers, said Rob Davis of Fresh Energy, a non-profit based in the state.

That attracts bees that can pollinate crops, Davis said, and could help to roll back some of the 10 million acres of pollinator habitat lost nationwide over the past two decades.

Doing so would cut maintenance costs, he said, and could increase the amount of solar energy generated.

"It creates a cooler microclimate, and solar panels produce more electricity when they're cooler," he said.

Minnesota's requirement that all large solar projects be pollinator-friendly was a major selling point in getting communities to support new developments, he said.

The law has sparked similar legislation in five other states, and has led large utilities - which are some of the major investors in solar power in the United States - to follow that lead, Davis said.

Cypress Creek Renewables - an independent solar developer in North Carolina - started a pollinator programme last year and has similar projects in four states, said Bryanna Glod Ocitti, its senior director of strategic development.

A pilot programme is assessing having livestock graze around solar arrays: that could let farmers could keep using land that is generating energy, and solar developers cut costs by having animals trim the vegetation, Ocitti said.

"Putting solar on some underutilised parts of their land ... has helped (landowner partners) to weather the ups and downs of farming," she said.

Solar panels sit on an experimental “dual use” agricultural plot in May 2018 at the UMass Research Farm in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, USA. Handout photo by River Strong.

UNTAPPED RESOURCE

Others are looking to avoid competition over land-use by targeting landfill and other degraded areas.

Some of the most innovative work is taking place in Nevada, where in August authorities amended state law to include solar development as a valid use for former mine lands, said John Zablocki of the Nature Conservancy, an advocacy group.

That has been supported across the political spectrum, including by environmental groups and the mining industry, he said. He and his colleagues see great potential nationally.

Government data shows the United States has more than 80,000 degraded sites comprising more than 43 million acres - far more than would be needed by 2050 - which could in theory generate 6,700GW annually, according to a 2015 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, a government body.

Zablocki and his colleagues want to transfer their knowledge to West Virginia, another state with a long mining history.

"I'd say it's America's greatest untapped energy resource — tens of millions of acres that can generate energy," he said.

"Mining companies are starting to see they can turn liabilities into assets, so we see Nevada and West Virginia as the tip of the spear."

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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