Utility Scale Solar is Coming to a Farm Near You
Note: This article was first published in the Virginia Mercury on 9/21/23 and was written by a real person–me.
We are in a wonderful, historic, frustrating, and devastating transition to renewable energy. Solar panels will be on buildings and parking lots and in highway medians, landfills, and brownfields. Utility scale solar should be installed on those places before we put it on farmland. But that’s not what’s happening.
Like it or not, it’s coming. Localities–especially those with weak ordinances for utility scale solar–need to get ready for it. I support big solar, but it must be done right.
Here are ten things to demand from any utility-scale solar project.
Utility Scale Solar Must-Haves
- Proper screening with vegetation and setbacks from property lines
- Riparian buffers along all hydric (like springs and streams) features within the project area
- Pollinator-friendly plants and/or dual purpose with agriculture under and around the panels
- Virginia has an amazing pollinator smart certification program
- Enough space between the rows of panels to support plant growth and water infiltration
- Proper erosion, sediment, and stormwater runoff controls—solar panels are not pervious to rainfall!
- A two-year storm is not a two-year storm anymore, take a higher road on E & S
- Consider proximity to transmission lines
- The requirement that the land be returned to its original use if solar panels are removed
- A decommissioning plan with a bond to back it up, including a requirement to recycle and reuse whatever is possible from the decommissioned panels
- Minimal impact on prime farmland (more on this later), forests, and cultural resources
- Stellar public participation and transparency
Much guidance is available on the proper siting of utility scale solar and on model ordinances. I have found the most complete guidance from the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley. The American Planning Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also provide good guidance.
Farmland Protection Purists, Hear Me Out, Please
In this country, we lose one acre of farmland every minute to development. Leasing farmland for solar (and putting it back as it was) is a way to protect farmland.
American farmers currently grow corn on 30 million acres to produce ethanol for our gas tanks and some studies show it produces more greenhouse gases than it saves. A little more than a third of that land in solar panels could generate 100 percent of America’s electricity demand.
The USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program has retired 23 million acres of farmland from annual crop production because they were highly erodible. Solar panels on half of that could generate 100 percent of America’s electricity demand.
Prime Farmland Versus Marginal Farmland
Panels should not be erected on prime farmland, defined as nearly level, with deep, well-drained soil capable of producing food without irrigation. These are class I and II soils in the USDA’s soil capability classification system. Land designated for a utility scale solar project should, generally, have less than 30 percent of class I and II soils.
Marginal farmland has soil that is class III or higher. These soils have “severe limitations” for growing food. They may be better off in panels with pollinator plants or forage for sheep to graze.
Solar Panels May Ruin Your View, but That’s a Nonissue
Don’t like the metallic look of solar panels? Get over it. It’s not your land. I wish there were a cost-share program to pay me for the view our farm provides the neighbors, but there isn’t. Putting solar panels on my land is a right granted because I bought and own the land. A changing view is not a legitimate reason to object to utility scale solar.
Consider the alternative view if the farmer sells out to development. Would you rather look at a sea of McMansions, which come with a whole host of far more downsides: suburban traffic, demands for more services, and higher taxes?
It’s Time to Move on From Our Fossil Fuel Binge
In a time when we have atmospheric rivers, bomb cyclones, heat domes, and record durations of extremely high temperatures; in a time when we have smoke from wildfires thousands of miles away clouding the Statue of Liberty and the mountains in the Shenandoah Valley; in a time when drought conditions bring death and devastation like that visited on Maui in August; we need to reduce carbon emissions, now, and in a big way. Utility scale solar will help us get there.