Exploring the Nexus of Solar Energy and Agriculture: How Do We Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy While Ensuring the Future of our Food Supply?

By Addie Candib and Chantel Welch, American Farmland Trust

Series of solar panels over bare ground
By 2050, 90% of solar energy is expected to come from utility-scale projects in rural communities (Ardani et al. 2021). Photo: Camille Seamann/Solutions Project under CC BY 2.0

Given ambitious state and federal goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the pace of solar energy development is accelerating rapidly in the Pacific Northwest, placing significant pressure on the region’s agricultural land and its stewards. According to a US Department of Energy study, by 2050, 90% of solar energy will come from utility-scale projects in rural communities (Ardani et al. 2021). Our team at American Farmland Trust (AFT) recently looked specifically at solar development as a contributor to farmland loss (Hunter et al. 2022). In addition to the nearly 200,000 acres at risk of conversion to urban and low-density residential development, Washington State could lose as many as 86,000 acres to solar development by 2040 (Figure 1).  We estimate that about 80% of that development – or 68,800 acres – will occur on agricultural land. While this may not sound like a lot given Washington’s vast agricultural landscape, it’s equal to or more than the total acreages used by some flagship crops: barley (70,000 acres), hops (43,000 acres), cherries (39,000 acres), or onions (19,000 acres).

 The opportunity to lease land to solar developers may have considerable appeal for a farmland owner given the many challenges that face our region’s producers: unstable commodity markets, rising property values, labor shortages, climate change, and lack of successors, just to name a few. But solar leases also carry significant risk for the landowner and for the land. Here we discuss two approaches AFT is taking to help ensure that the interests and values of agricultural lands and landowners are equitably considered at all levels of decisions around solar development.

Map of US states, color coded based on acreage of utility-scale solar projects expected.
Figure 1. Projected land area of utility-scale solar photovoltaics in 2040 (total acreage). Source: American Farmland Trust.

First, recognizing that solar development is key to meeting renewable energy goals, AFT has developed four core Smart Solar℠ principles to inform a national solar buildout that won’t sacrifice our agricultural landscapes, economies, and communities. They are:

Principle 1. Prioritize Solar Siting on Buildings and Land Not Well Suited for Farming

Emphasize solar energy development on rooftops, carports, irrigation ditches, brownfields or other land not well suited for agriculture to help minimize the impacts of solar energy on our nation’s best agricultural land and farm businesses.

Principle 2. Safeguard the Ability for Land to Be Used for Agriculture

If solar energy is developed on farmland or ranchland, policies and practices should protect soil health, especially during construction and decommissioning, to ensure opportunities for farming in the future.

Principle 3. Grow Agrivoltaics for Agricultural Production and Solar Energy

Agriculture and solar energy can coexist if appropriate planning is undertaken. Agrivoltaic projects sustain agricultural production underneath solar panels or between rows of solar panels throughout the life of the project.

Principle 4. Promote Equity and Farm Viability

Farmers and underserved communities should benefit from solar energy development. There must be inclusive stakeholder engagement to ensure projects strengthen farm viability and reflect farmer interests, including underserved producers that face barriers to accessing land and other resources.

Our second approach is directed at farmers specifically. While AFT is steadfast in its commitment to protecting prime farmlands from solar development and optimistic about the potential for agrivoltaics, we recognize and appreciate that the decision to lease land for solar is a complex one for farmland owners. The financial incentives are real and powerful: in contrast to the low per-acre rates farmland owners can get for leasing for pasture or crops, solar developers are paying as much as $1,000 per acre per year, sometimes with significant per-acre sign-on bonuses.

Solar panels over vegetation, with barns and equipment in the background
Agrivoltaics, the use of land for both agriculture and solar energy production, could have potential to preserve farmland while allowing farm owners access to additional revenue streams. Photo: AgriSolar Clearinghouse under CC BY 2.0

Yet these are long-term decisions, with possibly wide-ranging legal and financial implications, and can have even longer-term impacts on the land’s suitability for agriculture. Solar leases can last up to 30 years and can be difficult for landowners to modify or end early. Installations can have significant impacts on the land (including soil compaction and disturbance) that may limit future agricultural production. Installations can impact wildlife corridors and viewsheds, affecting neighbors and the surrounding area. Additional risks include liability insurance, impacts to succession planning, implications for eligibility in federal conservation programs, and the potential to jeopardize water rights.

AFT and other agricultural service providers are interested in partnering with landowners to help them navigate this uncharted territory. To this end, our Pacific Northwest team, in collaboration with Farm Commons and Oregon State University’s Nexus of Energy, Water and Agriculture Laboratory, recently released Solar Leasing: A Guide for Agricultural Landowners in the Pacific Northwest. Divided into three sections, the guide walks landowners through the process of I) Gathering Information, II) Making a Decision, and III) Negotiating the Solar Lease. The guide is intended to be a comprehensive resource for farmers and ranchers, with tools and information to help them better understand the emerging solar development field and its potential to impact agricultural land.

We are also hosting a series of virtual workshops for farm and ranch owners in the winter of 2022-2023. By helping landowners understand the full array of these risks and equipping them with the tools and skills to evaluate whether solar leases are right for them, these workshops will prepare landowners to make informed decisions, anticipate production losses, and avoid costly legal conflicts.

Download the solar leasing guidebook or register for a workshop.

References:

Ardani, K. et. al., Solar Futures, U.S. Department of Energy, September 2021. P. 181

Hunter, M et. al, Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future, American Farmland Trust, June 2022.

The development of the solar leasing guide is supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2021-70027-34713.