Sunflowers or Solar Panels: A Treatise of Using Farmlands for Utility-Scale Solar Development

When I first saw the email from our neighborhood that there was a proposal to build a 1,700-acre utility-scale solar plant in our rural township, I immediately had mixed feelings. I support green power and fighting global warming, but this sounds huge. I wondered to myself why these much-needed solar arrays aren’t being built in industrial and commercial areas closer to urban centers where the power is most needed. However, I really didn’t give it much more thought at that time. It wasn’t until we received a map several weeks later in the mail from local activists that showed the entire White River Township and exactly what area was to be covered, that I really started to understand the scale of this power plant.

I knew this area well, having taught my kids to drive on its country roads, taken pictures of my kids in front of fields of sunflowers, and meandered the seasonal roads with my camera and binoculars. This installation was huge and is reported to cover about half the tillable land in this small Michigan township. That is a huge change that will negatively impact this Lake Michigan community’s tourist appeal of driving through a beautiful bucolic area to access its forests, dunes, golf courses, marinas, and beaches. This will change the very nature of this township.

Preservation of our nation’s farmlands is a topic dear to my heart. My grandfather delivered milk and ice with a horse and buggy in upstate New York and owned a dairy farm. Some of my favorite memories are helping out on and exploring the farm during our brief visits. At less than five years-old, my uncle propped me up on the seat of the John Deere while it slowly creeped across the field and my family lifted bales of hay onto a wagon behind me. I'm no farming expert, but I do know where my food comes from and that it isn’t an easy way to make a living. The farm where my mom was raised is now a golf course and her bedroom the pro shop.

I am also an environmentalist that has been contemplating the installation of solar panels both at the family cottage and our home. However, I am also a natural and agricultural land preservation advocate. I know from the articles I have been reading and the podcasts that I listen to that we are losing 1.9 million acres per year of our farmlands (Source: the latest Farm and Land in Farms report from the United States Department of Agriculture). At a time when the US has struggled with flooded crop lands, droughts, rising food costs, food distribution challenges and poorly stocked grocery store shelves, I wonder how it makes sense to cover almost half of the township’s tillable land. Agricultural land and its soil are dwindling and not a renewable resource. (More than 57 billion tons of soil have eroded in the U.S. Midwest)

So, I started to dig deeper into the topic and quickly learned that this is a big problem many communities are facing right now in Michigan, the United States and internationally. Proponents of utility scale solar talk about harvesting the sun and growing green energy, but a solar power plant is not an agricultural use of the land. Agriculture is “…the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock.” (Merriam Webster) That doesn’t make solar bad, it just isn’t farming.

Building a massive utility-scale solar array on hundreds or thousands of acres doesn’t mean the land gets to rest and recuperate under a solar blanket that can be rolled up and stored when you want to grow crops again on the fields. When building a solar plant complex, developers usually start by scaping off the top soil, they flatten and alter the natural topography of the land (initially contoured slowly by glaciers in our township), remove any tree lots that are in the way, construct temporary and permanent roads, build substations and service buildings, add power lines to connect the site to the grid and then fence the entire area.

The developers will spend decades and lots of money maintaining, repairing, and enhancing these solar arrays. With that type of investment, I don’t expect the sites will ever be restored to agricultural land. I would expect them instead to renegotiate the lease and continue using the sites for green energy production because that’s good business to leverage the ongoing investment they will have to make in these large solar arrays. Plus, locking up agricultural land in these solar developments also has some direct impacts on the land and local economy which is going to make it challenging to return these lands to agricultural use.

North Carolina State University Professor Ron Heiniger explains in his article “Solar Farming: Not a Good Use of Agricultural Land that in utility-scale solar developments, plant growth under the solar arrays is often managed with herbicides, mowing, and using mulches, rock, or plastic ground to cover the ground. These degrade the soil quality by leaving herbicide residues and causing soil compaction. Solar panels can break too which may cause contamination from heavy metals and rare earth elements used in their construction. Of course, farmers are using herbicides today, but if the utility-scale solar development were to embrace grazing by goats and sheep under the arrays they would eliminate the need to use herbicides and mowing as well as reduce their maintenance and operating budgets while also generating green power.

Heiniger also writes that covering the agricultural lands with solar panels can also negatively impact local agrarian economies when the reduced acreage of lands available to farm cause rental fees and property costs to rise.  There is also a domino effect in the local economy that causes seed, fertilizer, hardware and lumber suppliers, equipment manufacturers, and other businesses to shutter as well as a reduction in agriculture related employment causing workers to relocate. He also cautions farmers interested in leasing their lands to solar to ensure the solar developer is required to post an adequate bond to fund a viable decommission plan for the solar plant which details how the land will be restored and how the panels will be removed and disposed of at the lease’s conclusion. That doesn’t sound cheap to me, especially if they first remove all the topsoil when building the arrays. I don’t expect these lands will ever be farmed again.

Besides the degrading of agricultural lands, negative agrarian economic impacts and concerns with decommissioning, these solar power plants also have many environmental concerns. They often impact the area’s groundwater, cause waterway sedimentation, alter drainage patterns, and can aggravate areas that already struggle with flooding and high-water issues. Then there are the long-term ecological effects of having to dispose of all these solar panels because they sometimes break and always degrade with time. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review; “The replacement rate of solar panels is faster than expected and given the current very high recycling costs, there’s a real danger that all used panels will go straight to landfill (along with equally hard-to-recycle wind turbines).

Regulators and industry players need to start improving the economics and scale of recycling capabilities before the avalanche of solar panels hits.” (Read The Darkside of Solar) According to the EU, about 95% of solar panels can be recycled. (Read Posts mislead about environmental impact of green energy) However, the issue is capacity. (Read the EPA’s Solar Panel Recycling) The solar recycling industry is new and researchers are still figuring out how to economically recover most of the components of a solar panel. Most solar panel components like glass, metals, and electronics already have established recycling programs which can accommodate solar panels and other solar power system components. However, solar panels may also include toxic metal components such as lead and cadmium which will also have to be dealt with when repairing panels or decommissioning utility-scale solar arrays.

More immediately, construction of these huge industrial solar arrays would also impact thousands of acres of wildlife habitats and corridors. The installation of these solar farms involves scraping off topsoil and grading the land, then fencing in the area. This directly removes natural habitats and constructs boundaries that affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Then there is the theory that as we lose our agricultural lands in the United States, carbon sequestering forests will be cleared in other parts of the world to feed us, which has a reverse effect than intended in battling global warming. This issue is exponentially accelerated by western America's drought. Dwindling water supplies in the western US means they won’t be able to grow as many crops, but we do have the water here in the Midwest to continue to feed our nation. At a time when the United States has been suffering from food shortages and rising food costs, it seems irresponsible to cover up our country’s crop lands with solar arrays. We also have food distribution and processing issues in the United States, but loosing agricultural lands to non-agricultural uses like power plants isn’t going to help that situation. (US food supply chain: Disruptions and implications from COVID-19)

There are also some promising studies going on with Agrivoltaic farming which is the practice of growing crops underneath solar panels. (Read Made in the shade: Growing crops at solar farms yields efficiency) Doubling up on land use in this way could help both feed our country while also providing sustainable energy, but in our rush to build these arrays and not considering the opportunity to also farm the land in the solar development, the only thing that is growing under most of these solar arrays are lawns. While you might think lawns would be useful in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, lawn care actually contributes to global warming because of the use of gas-powered lawn mowers, weedwhackers, and leaf blowers as well as the use of synthetic fertilizers. (Read: Lawn Maintenance and Climate Change)

On brownfields there is also the potential to eliminate grass if solar panels could be installed right on the ground. In Texas, an energy technology company is testing the effectiveness of such an installation and finding that solar arrays built in this manner are cheaper to build and produce more energy per acre than the pole mounted arrays. (Read This Texas solar farm’s panels will sit flat on the ground) Of course, laying the solar panels on the ground wouldn’t work for agrivoltaic farming, but it is cheaper to install, produces more energy per acre, may have less effect on area’s viewsheds and might work great in areas like brownfields. There is big solar production potential in brownfields.

In 2018, the EPA identified 80,000 brownfields and municipal waste landfills that would be appropriate for renewables energy development. There is even an online map to look at your area to see if any are available. When built properly to ensure there are no environmental impacts with building the utility-scale solar array on brownfields and waste management areas, using this type of land both helps preserve open natural and agricultural lands in other areas as well as making those properties useful again to society.  (RE-Powering America’s Land)

Of course, in our free-market economy the corporations building these industrial utility-scale solar arrays are more concerned with their bottom line than environmental and societal health, which, of course, is our government’s job not business. Consequently, most of these large solar arrays seem to be proposed and built in agriculturally zoned lands because they are the cheapest and fastest option for these types of developments. (The Inflation Reduction Act: Benefits for Solar Developers)

Because industrial-scale solar is also relatively new, most of these rural areas do not have master plans or zoning established to deal with these often-controversial large solar development proposals. This situation is further complicated by the urgent need to fight global warming, developers wanting their piece of green energy subsidies from the Inflation Reduction Act, an aging farming community looking at easier ways to make a living, adequate zoning regulations not yet being in place in most rural areas, and large corporations with the resources and willingness to bully local municipalities though quick decisions. It is a bit of a perfect storm situation. (Solar power developer sues township for failing to consider large project in West Michigan)

Some of the debate over the construction of industrial-scale solar on agricultural lands could be assuaged if the developers and farmers would embrace agrivoltaics, which I wrote earlier is the dual use of solar and growing crops or grazing together. Most people I’ve talked to about my concerns of covering agricultural lands with utility-scale solar arrays say two things about agrivoltaics. They say it is too new to really worry about at this point and that the farmers don’t want to farm their lands anymore; they just want to cash out.

It's true that about a third of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States are over 65, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census published in 2019. While planning their retirement and few having family that want to take over the farm, many farmers are looking at solar developments as a way to generate income from the land they no longer want to farm and land they really don’t want to sell to developers.  Many of these farms have been in the same family for more than 100 years.

At the same time, young people wanting to enter the farming industry can’t find affordable land to lease or purchase. By creating thousands of acres of utility-scale solar on agricultural lands, the farmlands are unavailable for selling or leasing to others for farming because they are leased to solar developers for decades. This, of course, will also cause the remaining property values of agricultural lands to rise and become even harder for new farmers to purchase. (Keeping Farmers on the Land Read More - American Farmland Trust)

Unfortunately, the solar utility developers are not farmers and many of the farmers are leasing complete control of their land to the developers. Not many of these utility-scale solar arrays are being built with plans for growing crops or grazing, and the planning for this should be done before the site is constructed. There is no standard, generalized guidelines for agrivoltaics because the design needs to change for each development depending on the land itself, the crops to be raised, the animals to be grazed, and the local community’s goals. Generally speaking, either the panels need to raised to accommodate the specific max crop height, or panels need to be removed from the array to allow more light through for non-shade resistant crops, or the panels maybe spaced out further to accommodate farming equipment. Of course, there’s cost, crop, and energy tradeoffs for all these adjustments.  

Critics of agrivoltaics say this is new, but actually it has been going on for a number of years. The dual-use technique of combining solar and farming was originally conceived by Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow in 1981. (Agrivoltaics Wikipedia Page) Since 2015, the US Department of Energy has been researching agrivoltaics with their Innovative Solar Practices Integrated with Rural Economies and Ecosystems (InSPIRE) research project. They examined the many aspects of agrivoltaics at over 25 sites including crop production, grazing, pollinator habitat, and ecosystem services.  (Read The 5 Cs of Agrivoltaic Success Factors in the United States: Lessons From the InSPIRE Research Study)

I’m not the kind of person that likes to put all my eggs in one basket. So, I think it would be best when building these utility-scale solar arrays on agricultural lands that they be designed with the ability to utilize all three compatible uses of growing crops, grazing livestock and pollinator plantings. This would increase our community’s chances of the maximizing economic and environmental benefits of these solar plants. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and China are embracing agrivoltaics. (Read Electric farms in Japan are using solar power to grow profits and crops) In fact, in Australia, New York and New Jersey, they are even experimenting with combining green roofs, roof top gardens and solar. (Read More Bad News For Fossil Fuels: Rooftop Solar Meets Agrivoltaics)

It is easy to understand that combining incomes from growing crops or grazing livestock and generating solar energy from the same land is going to increase income and profits for farmers on a per-acre basis if they can continue to farm their land while leasing it to utility solar developers. There are also many benefits to pollinator plantings which may prove to be a great help for struggling populations of bees, monarchs and other insects. (Read Buzzing Around Solar: Pollinator Habitat Under Solar Arrays)

In fact, Michigan is betting big on the benefits of pollinator plantings in utility-scale solar arrays. They are even allowing farmland currently enrolled in the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program to be used for commercial solar array purposes. There are requirements that pollinator habitat be included within the fenced area and anywhere else appropriate and that a bond be set aside to pay for decommissioning the site and returning it to its original condition as agricultural land. This may also benefit declining bird species as well like the bobolink.  This all sounds great, but if it’s agricultural land it should also have the ability to continue to grow crops, or provide grazing for livestock, as well as generate solar power.

In fact, there is a large economic opportunity with sheep. Currently most of our lamb meat is imported from Australia and New Zealand. Shipping lamb from the south Pacific seems crazy to me when we can raise sheep here in the United States. Think of the fossil fuels used for shipping that we could save! Likewise, I think that building utility-scale solar arrays in remote and rural areas makes no sense until after all the options with industrial, commercial, and brownfields are explored.  

So, armed with information gleaned from researching online and emailing experts, I attended several public meetings to make statements in White River Township about the proposed 1,700-acre utility-scale solar project and the new solar ordinance that the Zoning Commission had prepared and is sending to the Township Board to approve. In the proposed ordinance, they proposed capping any solar development to 500 total acres. Consumers Power also lists the minimum ideal utility-scale solar development as 500 acres, so that sounded like a reasonable compromise to me. (Read Solar Power and Landowners | Consumers Energy)

I don’t know if it is coincidental that the township zoning commission recommended 500 acres, but it is interesting that this is what Consumers says is the minimum ideal size. Consumers also estimates that only about 2% of Michigan agricultural lands would be needed for utility-scale solar and the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy said about 1% of Michigan’s land would be needed for its solar energy goals. These are helpful figures to benchmark against, but ultimately each community should be deciding what size industrial utility-scale solar plant makes sense for them according to their Master Plan and what is best for the collective community.

The local community in White River Township is divided over the issue. Lawn tents were erected, t-shirts distributed, Facebook groups established, and insults flew freely from both sides. Childhood friends were even estranged because they disagreed on the issue. Critics of the project argued that the size and scale was inappropriate for the township, while proponents talked of the need to combat global warming and the rights of private property owners to do whatever they wanted with their property.   

The property rights argument really frustrates me. Zoning laws are used to prevent new development from interfering with existing uses and/or to preserve the "character" of a community. Just because you own property, doesn't mean you can just do whatever you want there. This is essentially changing the property's zoning from agricultural to industrial because they are constructing a power plant. (Read California’s Power Plant types page)

If a farmer was installing a solar array to power their farm, that is different than a utility solar power plant. I would think the private property argument would be more valid if someone was trying to stop that. However, the farmers aren't building this, some corporations are leasing the land and building it. Even if the developer bought the property, they would still have to abide by the current zoning. This isn't a property right. If it was, they wouldn't be asking permission.

I am not opposed to solar power, but it should not be at the expense of our agricultural lands. Building these sorts of solar arrays on the top of factories, warehouses, and parking lots where the power generated would also be closer to where it is needed and where less energy would be lost during transmission makes more sense than in prime farmland. France even passed a law that all parking lots over a certain size needs to have a solar canopy, I would love to see that here in the United States. (Read New Law: 50%+ Solar Power Over Parking Lots In France )

The beauty of a solar power grid designed and built properly is having the solar panels disbursed and close to the point where the energy is needed.  Building utility-scale solar arrays in remote and rural areas follows a dated extractive resource model and transmitting energy long distances across the countryside is inefficient. Building in such a manner is modeling the power grid of yesterday that utilized coal, nuclear, gas and hydroelectric power plants. We should be putting solar on every roof, parking lot and brownfield before we ever consider building utility-scale solar developments on our agricultural lands. (Read What's wrong with big solar in cities? Nothing, if it's done right) And, if we do build them on agricultural lands, we should be using agrovolatics and growing crops or grazing animals as well as generating green energy.

It is also very ironic to think federal and state funds would be used to cover agricultural land with solar panels by subsidizing the massive construction of utility-scale renewable energy projects while monies are also being spent to recruit new farmers and protect our dwindling agricultural lands and nonrenewable soils. It seems like a very counterproductive use of our taxpayers’ money. Of course, it is probably easier and cheaper to build and scale these industrial solar arrays in agricultural lands, but easier is not always the best choice when making important decisions like this.

Thanks for reading, Ken Jacobsen (Commerce Twp, Michigan)


TNC Power of Place

Since writing this treatise, The Nature Conservancy released a report in which TNC is advocating agrivoltaics and avoiding productive farmland as well as avoiding ecologically sensitive areas when developing green energy facilities. Links to map and reports are:

Submitted to:
President Joseph Biden
Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Representative Haley Stevens
Representative Matt Maddock
Senator Jim Runestad
Senator Debbie Stabenow
Senator Gary Peters

Michigan Chapter of The Sierra Club
Michigan Audubon Society
Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy
Land Conservancy of West Michigan
The Environmental Report
White River Township
Commerce Township
Detroit Audubon
Land Trust Alliance

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