Is solar a good use of farmland?

Aug 29 2019 | 05:38 PM

A big win for small towns

When properly developed, solar farms built on farmlands benefit land owners, consumers, and the community.Many solar projects are developed to protect farmland, and create revenue off an otherwise unused area. Farmland isn’t always fertile, and sometimes will be left fallow to increase future crop yield. Farmers harvest solar in these areas and still allow animals to graze, and plant soil-restorative plants on the same fields.The income-per-acre of community solar projects is higher and more reliable for farmers than conventional crops, such as corn or hay. As farmers grow older and look to retire, community solar allows them a steady, reliable stream of income.

Customers wonder if community solar on farmlands affects food production. Community solar on farmlands is not even in the top 100 threats to food production. It would take 0.6 percent of US land to provide electricity to the entire US population, and 44 percent of American soil is agricultural.

Using land for community solar allows farmers to significantly benefit the world.Farmland is ideal terrain for solar farms. Lowered construction costs allow companies to offer higher savings to the consumers. As well, once a solar project is complete, it’s simple to return the land back to its original condition; solar panels require no foundation, and most wires are installed above-ground. People ask, “Why not city rooftops?” Putting the same amount of solar in a city would be nearly impossible, more expensive than burning fossil fuels, and only benefit the local urban area. Those in suburbs would be locked out of clean solar energy.Community solar preserves the strength of local communities and provides clean energy for the region. Solar gardens -- arrays installed in a centralized location, where residents who can’t install solar at home can enroll -- bring jobs to small towns, revenues to local governments and tax districts, and save those who subscribe roughly $4,300 in 20 years.

The solar industry is made up of people who care about the environment. It’s encouraging to see many solar companies developing projects with an eye towards preserving the local environment, and at Solstice we always try to do our part in increasing awareness.When done right, community solar on farmlands benefit all. Biba Davenport is the community solar champion at Solstice, which connects customers to “solar gardens” around the Northeast

Losing precious farmland — and farmers

This publication recently wrote about the Warwick School District’s installation of a utility scale solar farm. In the article, the assistant superintendent beamed with pride over the achievement and the productive use of otherwise “empty space.” I knew the farmers who farmed that “empty” land weren’t all too happy with the loss of hay for their cows. There was another side of the story that needed to be told. However it is with some reluctance that I put myself out to the world and attempt to argue against something which, to many, is a feel good story. And Lord knows we need feel good right now in this crazy world. I have nothing against solar panels installed on roof tops, over parking lots, or over other non-arable surfaces. However, in my view, putting solar panels on what precious little farmland we have remaining should not be celebrated. It should be protested with the same fury that the readers of these pages protested the new CPV power plant.

Just as fossil fuels create negative externalities, so too has this solar project and others like it. Sure it’s cheaper and logistically easier to install solar panels in an open field. However, when measuring profitability through the lens of sustainability, we need to consider what many business textbooks refer to as “the triple bottom line,” measuring impacts to people, planet and profits. The Warwick schools have extensive rooftop and parking lot surface area. They could have completed this project in a way that was more sensitive to the surrounding landscape and to the farm community. Unfortunately they chose to maximize financial profits at the expense of farmers and open space.

For better or for worse, the world is rapidly changing. Globalization has made farming in Orange and Sussex counties a losing endeavor for most. It is a cultural legacy that a dwindling and stubborn few cling to, myself included. I don’t know that the general public realizes how vulnerable the way of life really is.

Paradoxically, many farmers are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. New Jersey and New York farmers pay among the highest property tax burdens in the world, only to have the entities they support pave over the farmland with solar panels. If they don’t pay the taxes, they lose their land. If they pay their taxes, they lose access to surrounding land. In a quixotic feat, I myself turned down significant sums of money to install a solar farm and instead preserved my land in perpetuity. Economically irrational, but spiritually rewarding.

Kirk Stephens is the owner of Vernon Valley Farm