Solar arrays on farmland have provoked a firestorm of controversy in some parts of the US. Partly fueled by misinformation about climate change, opponents argue that solar power is not an appropriate use of arable land. Lost in the shuffle is a more significant loss of farmland due to residential and commercial development. Against that backdrop, agrivoltaics — the dual use of farmland with solar arrays — can be the solution to farmland loss, not the cause.
Agrivoltaics Versus Buildings
The idea of using solar arrays for pollinator habitats and grazing lands is already catching on among farmers, utilities, solar developers, conservationists, and the US Department of Agriculture.
Evidence is also beginning to emerge that some food crops can thrive in the cooling, partly shaded micro-climate of a solar array. Other potential benefits include saving water, conserving soil, preventing frost damage, and promoting resiliency during droughts (see more CleanTechnica coverage here).
Advocates for agrivoltaics point out that ground-mounted solar arrays involve minimal disruption of surfaces. If and when the array is removed, farming can resume on the property. In contrast, residential and commercial development involves extensive loss of soil as well as subsurface construction, pavement and other infrastructure, permanently removing the land from production.
Adding Up The Damages: 1.11 Million Acres Of Farmland Lost In Tennessee
Researchers at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture have published a study that describes the use of farmland in their home state under a solar expansion scenario, and they compared it to the loss of farmland from other development.
The researchers note that solar arrays currently operating or under development in Tennessee cover somewhere between 8,197 and 14,743 acres, or up to 0.137% of farmland in the state.
That’s a small fraction of farmland, though it is bound to grow in the coming years. On the other hand, it won’t grow by all that much, relatively speaking.
One major growth factor noted by the researchers is the ambitious, 10-gigawatt solar plan recently announced by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the electricity provider for Tennessee and six other southeastern states. The research team estimated that the TVA plan will require another 55,600 to 100,000 acres of land for solar development. That will most likely be spread among all seven states in TVA’s territory over a period ending in 2035.
In contrast, urban and suburban development is projected to soak up 420,000 of farmland in Tennessee alone over the coming years.
“The state’s farmland loss is primarily due to its increasing population, and these losses are projected to continue,” the researchers warn. “The American Farmland Trust projects Tennessee will convert another 420,000 farmland acres to urban and residential uses between 2016 and 2040.”
Those 420,00 acres will come on top of significant losses to urbanization and residential growth in Tennessee from 1997 to 2017. The researchers cite a total loss of 1.11 million acres or about 9% of farmland in the state during that 20-year period.
The Numbers Are The Numbers
The study itself was funded by solar stakeholders, including the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association, along with support from the US branch of the Denmark-based renewable energy firm GreenGo Energy and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
Still, the numbers are the numbers. The study makes it clear that solar development in Tennessee has been, and will continue to be, a relatively small factor in the loss of farmland.
The researchers also looked at the most impactful scenario for solar development in the TVA plan, in which Tennessee hosts all 10 gigawatts worth of new solar arrays. That’s not going to happen but it’s still a worthwhile exercise. They calculated a range of 0.52% to 0.93% for the percentage of Tennessee’s farmland taken up by new solar arrays over a period ending in 2035. It’s not peanuts, but it’s not 9% either.
The Agrivoltaics Solution
The impact of solar development on farmland in Tennessee could shrink even further if agrivoltaic practices become widespread, enabling farming activities to continue apace within fields of solar panels.
Lending an assist to the agrivoltaic movement is the growing interest in regenerative agriculture, which focuses on farming practices that encourage water conservation and soil health. Some aspects of regenerative farming dovetail with USDA programs that compensate farmers for taking land out of production. That model has been taken up by solar developers in Tennessee, one example being the firm Silicon Ranch.
The University of Tennessee research team took a look at the state of agrivoltaics research. While the science is still a work in progress, a body of evidence is developing.
“Combining solar and agriculture on one piece of land has … been shown to improve ecosystem services, including regulating local climate, air quality, water retention, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water and soil conservation,” they observed.
An additional benefit is the use of solar panels as fencing. That can have a significant bottom line impact on farming operations. The researchers cited one study of a rabbit farm that experienced an 8% reduction in operating costs and an increase of 17% in revenue, partly resulting from a savings on fencing.
Growing The Next Generation Of Farmers, With Solar Panels
The US Department of Agriculture has been on a mission to help farmers invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades, and agrivoltaic projects have also become part of the program. The Energy Department is also a fan.
The dual use movement has gained some friends in Congress, too, including new legislative proposals as well as new funding and tax incentives under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Another area of focus is access to land for aspiring or under-capitalized farmers. Last week, the USDA used the occasion of the Minnesota State Fair to turn the agrivoltaic spotlight on aspiring farmers, who can face considerable obstacles gaining access to farmland, let alone farming it.
The Emerging Farmers program launched in 2022 with a focus on newcomers to the US as well as first-generation farmers who need access to land or financing.
“Farmland access has been identified by the Emerging Farmers Office as the most common challenge that emerging farmers face,” USDA explains.
At the State Fair, USDA drew attention to a new branch of the Emerging Farmers program, called Solar Farmland Access for Emerging Farmers.
The Solar Access program is aimed specifically at large-scale agrivoltaic projects, not rooftop arrays and other small-scale projects. The program aims to leverage solar developments owned by members of the nation’s sprawling network of electric cooperatives.
Some of these co-ops, including Connexus, have already begun to integrate pollinator habitats or grazing lands into their solar operations. The Solar Access program is designed to encourage electric cooperatives to provide access for new farmers to grow vegetable crops within their arrays.
The Solar Access program also highlights the considerable depth of support for agrivoltaics. In Minnesota, that includes the non-profits Great Plains Institute and Big River Farms, and the firms Connexus Energy and US Solar. The Energy Department is also on board with multi-partner agrivoltaic research projects, and the program is also partly funded by the Minnesota-based Mortenson Family Foundation.
That’s not going to make some people very happy. Last year, Reuters took note of a sudden surge in the number of Facebook-organized groups opposed to rural solar development.
NPR was also taking notes. It zeroed in on one influential opposition group called Citizens for Responsible Solar.
“Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded in an exurb of Washington, D.C., by a longtime political operative named Susan Ralston who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and still has deep ties to power players in conservative politics,” NPR observed last year, under the title, “An activist group is spreading misinformation to stop solar projects in rural America.”
The movement has reportedly had some success, but it looks like USDA has upped the ante with the Solar Access program. Last time we checked, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association counted more than 900 members spread across 47 states, covering about 42 million people and accounting for a service territory that takes up more than half the landmass in the contiguous US.
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Photo (cropped) courtesy of Connexus via DropBox.
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