For all the talk about saving the family farm, when independent farmers try to save themselves with solar energy it’s not always welcome news for the neighbors. A fight over farmland use in Washington State is the latest example of rural areas adjusting to solar development, and it ain’t pretty.
To be clear, the battle lines are hazy and it’s not just a case of small agricultural businesses bucking other locals. Big agriculture also stands to benefit from renewable energy development, too.
Solar Energy Trouble Brewing In Rural America
Reporter Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times has the rundown on the Washington situation.
The trouble began when a farming couple in Kittitas County decided to partner up with a Seattle-based solar developer called Tuusso Energy to convert some of their fields to photovoltaic arrays.
Support journalism and follow the link for more details, but for those of you on the go, Bernton teases out the money quote from the farmers’ perspective:
They aren’t happy. But it is a business decision we have made, and we don’t regret it one iota. We owe nobody a view. It’s our farm, and it’s a great way to diversify.
As Bernton reports, this particular development is significant because so far, relatively little farmland has been turned over for solar development in Washington. If the project moves forward, it could help accelerate that trend.
Opposition has coalesced around a newly formed local organization called Save our Farms (let’s pause here to note that the similarly named organization Save Family Farms lists a number of issues concerning family owned farms in Washington State, and solar development is not one of them; SFF is focused on dairy farmers and its main beef seems to be with the Western Environmental Law Center).
Despite the opposition, so far the project is on track for the green light. Earlier this month, a state agency overrode a Kittitas County moratorium on solar development. The review process will be expedited and in about two months Governor Jay Inslee will make the final decision, so stay tuned for that.
Where Else Can You Put A Solar Farm In Farmland?
If you put aside that thing about the economic survival of family farms and paint with a broad brush, there is some evidence that solar development in farming regions doesn’t necessarily have to impinge on farmland.
Last year researchers in California did a rural PV study of California’s Central Valley and came up with this:
…The Valley makes up 15 percent of California’s total land, and 3,250 of the Valley’s 20,000 square miles were classified as non-agricultural spaces viable for solar energy. But the authors calculate that development of solar power on just these lands would create enough electricity to power all of California 13 times over (with photovoltaic panels) or two times over (with concentrating solar power).
Those non-ag spaces include “buildings, rooftops, and parking lots; land with soil too salty for farming; reclaimed contaminated land; and reservoirs.”
If that’s starting to sound familiar, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Back during the Obama Administration, the US EPA took a close look at brownfields and Superfund sites available for clean power development, and came up with the potential for 14 million acres (that figure includes non-rural areas, but still!).
It’s also worth noting that local farmers are supported by local businesses and residents, so solar development in and around rural towns and cities can provide benefits across the region.
In the latest news on that score, let’s head across the country to Maine’s mid-coastal region, where last month the USDA approved a $1.5 million loan to offset the cost of a new 1.5 megawatt PV project on the grounds of a former Navy base in Maine.
Closure of the base in 2011 was supposed to be a death blow for the local economy, but the new solar development is part of a revitalization plan that has the region looking forward to new life as an innovation hub.
Bad Solar, Good Solar
If industrial scale solar farms are not welcome by all in farmland, a less contentious area of concern is the use of small-scale solar arrays at farming operations.
Back in 2011, the USDA took a close look at the potential for solar energy to benefit farmers economically while reducing their dependence on fossil fuels, noting that “Farmers have the tradition of being stewards of the land, and their investment in renewable energy supports their role of protecting the land, air, and water.”
The economic benefits to farmers and other grid stakeholders are pretty straightforward:
Solar energy, like other renewables, offers an opportunity to stabilize energy costs, decrease pollution and greenhouse gases (GHGs), and delay the need for electric grid infrastructure improvements (Brown and Elliott, 2005). Solar energy systems have low maintenance costs, and the fuel is free once the higher initial cost of the system is recovered through subsidies and energy savings (from reduced or avoided energy costs).
According to the USDA, by 2011 solar was already the leading pathway for farmers to generate renewable energy on site.
A lot has changed since 2011, namely, the cost of PV has fallen off a cliff, and new financial products enable PV owners to get their hands on solar panels with little or no up-front costs.
For an update on that, let’s head to the middle of the US, where reporter Kathleen Clark of the Journal-Courier takes note of some new small scale PV development on local farms and other businesses.
One family farm, for example, was paying out between $500 and $600 monthly for electricity. Their bill now usually consists of little more than the regular meter fee (support local journalists and follow the link for more details).
Clark cites the developer of the farm’s solar developer, Dave Ronen of IL-Solar, for a measure of how popular on site solar is among farmers:
“Our biggest customer is agriculture,” Ronen says. “We have done tons of hog buildings, milking facilities. You name it – we’ve done it.”
“Lots of the farms have net metering, this is when there’s over-production and the extra power is sent down the line, but credited to you on your bill. There’s no battery [to store power] so unused power is sent on down the line to the neighbors. Solar owners are working in unison with the power company,” Ronen says.
As for the future of rural solar development, it’s worth noting that rural electric cooperatives — of which there are hundreds in the US — is emerging as a strong backer of rural PV development. Here’s the trade organization NRECA on that score:
Increasingly, co-ops are bringing solar to regions of the country once considered unsuitable for solar development. The unique attributes of solar power – it is flexible and scalable – can provide power in remote areas unconnected to the grid. Co-op solar capacity has tripled in the last three years.
Looks like rural solar development is here to stay, one way or another.
Follow me on Twitter.
Photo: via Tuusso Energy.