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Farm To Solar Field Transformations Come With Controversy & Compromise

Two coasts are tackling land conversions to solar by drawing on local knowledge.

The abandoned farm supports an ecosystem of “thousands of little creatures.” Advocacy groups argue that converting a 40-acre farm to solar facility would decimate forest and grassland, ruin premium farmland, destroy wildlife habitat, and unalterably harm the property’s soil. Farm to solar field transitions like this one on historic Wingover Farm in Rhode Island are becoming more common yet increasingly contentious.

On the other hand, in California’s San Joaquin Valley alone, farmers may need to take more than half a million acres out of production to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will, ultimately, put restrictions on pumping. According to the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, converting what had been farm to solar arrays could be key to meeting California’s climate action targets.

Image courtesy Zach Shahan, CleanTechnica

California’s Switch from Farm to Solar

As reported by the LA Times, the Central Valley is more ecologically degraded than California’s inland deserts, where bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, and golden eagles still roam across vast stretches of largely intact wilderness.

California has ambitious climate and energy policies that call for the development of significant amounts of new zero-carbon energy by mid-century. According to a new report titled, “Power of Place: Land Conservation and Clean Energy Pathways for California,” multiple pathways are needed to meet clean energy demand in alignment with decarbonization goals, yet policymakers are conscious that they need to limit the impacts of  energy development on high value natural and agricultural lands.

While many land areas across the West have high renewable resource potential and conservation values, there are multiple pathways to achieving this clean energy target while avoiding significant ecosystem impacts. Such transformations do require careful, measured, and appropriate planning.

The San Joaquin Valley is home to 2 dozen threatened and endangered species, but, then again, the landscape was almost totally reshaped by agriculture long ago. Solar energy projects could replace some of the jobs and tax revenues that may be lost as constrained water supplies force California’s agriculture industry to scale back. However, the shift from farm to solar is controversial — it can alter the pastoral landscape and take some of the most fertile soil in the world out of production at a time when the global population is soaring.

The Life of a Tree & Carbon Sequestration

Rhode Island is an example of a state that is tackling its clean energy goals, in part, by utilizing farm lands. Some farmers, for example, are “greening” their operations through the Rhode Island Farm Energy Program, which supports energy efficiency projects as well as helps farmers transition to renewable power. A solar farm made up of 9,400 solar panels that was built on top of what had been a 32-acre private landfill — capped and closed for more than 25 years — will save taxpayers millions while protecting the environment.

However, debates over clearing forestland and altering habitat to make way for vast fields of photovoltaic panels in rural parts of the state have met with significant opposition. Scott Millar, a senior policy analyst who works with Grow Smart Rhode Island, noted during a recent conference sponsored by the University of Rhode Island that cutting forests has the result of “emitting a lot of carbon that has been sequestered. When you do this kind of work,” he reminded, “it’s unlikely that this soil will ever return to its original state.”

Bill McKibben of echoed this sentiment in a recent New Yorker article. “Burning wood to generate electricity expels a big puff of carbon into the atmosphere now. Eventually, if the forest regrows,” he explained, “that carbon will be sucked back up. But eventually will be too long—as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear last fall, we’re going to break the back of the climate system in the next few decades.”

His message? Wood is just another fossil fuel, and trees are better staying in the ground than being appropriated for energy.

Cutting Away Habitat Causes Concern

The proposed Wingover Farm solar project would clear fields that are home to Indian pipe, milkweed, princess pine, mountain laurel, and creeping myrtle. About 20 acres of American beech, white pines, sycamore maples, oaks, spruce, yellow and silver birch, and American holly would be clear-cut. Fifteen acres of corn field would be lost.

“A farm’s land is its bank account,” Julie Munafo told ecoRI as her family contemplated selling the Tiverton, RI property. “Farmers are always putting nutrients in and pulling nutrients out. This project will withdraw every cent and put nothing back in. It will exploit the land.” Various species inhabit the farm: butterflies, dragonflies, bats, toads, salamanders, foxes, muskrats, otters, deer, wild turkeys, great blue herons, egrets, blue-winged teal ducks, wood ducks, quail, pheasant, owls, bull, and wood and leopard frogs.

In 2017 the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources under Governor Gina Raimondo (D) met with conservationists and environmental non-profits to come up with a means to bring local decisions into compliance with state law and to set some ground rules about where to site and where to not site solar projects. The resulting bill, H 5789, would require that cities and towns adopt or update comprehensive solar siting ordinances for both roof-and ground-mounted PV installations by April 30, 2020 and to submit these to the state by January 31, 2020 for review.

A state-wide database of “preferred siting locations” including gravel pits, previously disturbed lands, and other locations in the state will create “interconnection value reimbursements”  to incentivize developers to build there instead of in forests or farmland, or other areas with with conflicting uses. Rupert Friday, the executive director of the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, stated that specific provisions for protected lands that had been agreed upon by the committee early in the process were not included in the bill.

Repurposing Degraded Agricultural Lands

California has plenty of farmland that could be converted to solar panels without harming the state’s $50-billion agriculture industry, clean energy advocates say. 470,000 acres of “least-conflict” lands in the San Joaquin Valley are sites where salty soil, poor drainage, or otherwise less-than-ideal farming conditions make solar an attractive alternatives for landowners.

Many farmers are pointing to the uncertain economics of their lives and the need to have other income than traditional crops alongside the recognition that renting out acreage for solar panels is a means to help combat global warming.

The Nature Conservancy is working to determine how California can satisfy its appetite for clean energy without destroying ecologically sensitive lands across the American West. The “Power of Place” report lays out possible answers to one of the big questions facing renewable energy: Which areas should be dedicated to solar panels and wind turbines, and which areas should be protected for the sake of wildlife, outdoor recreation, farming and grazing?

Final Thoughts

California and Rhode Island represent two states on opposite coasts that are confronting the need to expand renewable energy resources but which also recognize the need to protect natural resources in the process. Conservationists have fought projects in wilderness areas and rural residents have fought projects near their communities.

The price of continuing with business as usual, Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Sacramento trade group, Large-Scale Solar Association, argues, “is basically losing the battle on climate change. We can no longer afford to fight about this. We need all the power we can get as fast as we can get it.”

These and many other US states are embroiled in controversy regarding the transition to solar.

  • In February, San Bernardino County, California’s largest by area, banned the construction of large solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres of private land.
  • Efforts to build a 1.98 megawatt solar farm on 25-acre wooded area near Connecticut’s Chatfield Hollow State Park are facing opposition from Killingworth Advocates for Responsible Solar. That group wrote an 11-page letter to the Connecticut Siting Council that the solar farm’s proposed location is “environmentally objectionable.” The Siting Council is responsible for determining the appropriate location for utility infrastructure.
  • Multiple communities are in an uproar over a proposed solar farm in Madison County, Indiana. “Lone Oak Solar Farm” is controversial not only for property value loss but also affects on livestock. “All this water is going to come out into my pasture,” DuWayne Walls, who lives near the proposed solar farm, told Indianapolis RTV6. “My cows are going to drink it. It’s going to kill my grass, maybe.”
  • A 10 square mile, 1.8 million panel solar project is planned for Spotsylvania County, about 60 miles south of Washington, D.C. NPR reports that, amid the county’s Civil War battlefields, farms and timberland, a fight is raging over the future of energy in Virginia, with solar opponents saying the project will hurt the environment with by eliminating carbon-reducing trees — thousands of acres have already been clear-cut in preparation for the project.

As the controversies continue, the question is not a binary of forest or solar — it’s a matter of careful consideration of the proper places to install solar. As with any human practice, moderation is always the best practice. Global tree restoration is definitely one step toward mitigating our climate crisis. As we decided best practices to offer renewable energy options, we need to recognize that the most efficacious means to climate action is a rapid end to fossil energy use.

[Update: The RI bill H 5789 did not pass.]

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