With climate change and the energy transition accelerating, farmers across the U.S. are facing new risks that are challenging their adaptative capacity as well as their checkbooks. Against this backdrop, many farmers are considering the mechanics of community solar to see how it might be able to help them continue to farm their land profitably.
According to the USDA’s most recent forecast, farm income is expected to fall just over 8%, or $9.8bn, to $111.4bn this year. Total production expenses and spending on feed, fertilizer, and labor are expected to be higher on farms this year, but the USDA’s forecasted drop, which comes on the heels of several difficult years, is largely due to lower direct government farm payments.
After hitting a highwater mark last year, direct government farm program payments, which were designed to support the U.S. sector because of the trade war with China, are forecast to decrease 45.3% to $25.3bn in 2021.
The support that community solar can offer farmers is not lost on U.S. farm bureaus. Many have already begun exploring how community solar can be deployed to improve farmers’ economics. After all, the ability to receive a lease payment for community solar is an attractive financial incentive.
“It can provide farmers with year-round income. A farmer’s loan payments don’t stop when the growing season ends,” Brad Mitchell, the deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) said. Financial burdens are a leading reason why farms are sold for development, he added.
For the rural areas in which farms are based, community solar projects can provide tax income. Community solar projects are already often sited in rural communities where land tends to be less expensive.
Typically, a community solar facility requires 10-30 acres of land to generate approximately 3-5 megawatts of electricity.
A natural fit
As open, sunny places, farms are a natural fit for solar arrays. In theory, community solar is also a logical fit for farms.
“It could be a match made in heaven,” Mitchell said. “Farmers often need year-round income and an infusion of cash into their business, society needs farms and open space, and communities need cheaper reliable energy,” he said.
In Massachusetts, most MFBF members sell directly to customers through community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements. “If marketed properly, the same customers who support CSAs could likely get behind community solar on a farm,” Mitchell said. Like a CSA, community solar supports maintaining open spaces and keeping farms in business.
Despite the synergies between farms and community solar, concerns that solar could become the primary use of a farm and that an area’s rural aesthetic could be disrupted often crop up.
These fears ignore the fact that farmers often prefer to put arrays on underperforming soil and that, unlike other development options, solar arrays can be removed in the future and the farm can be returned to agriculture, Mitchell said. Also, community input can be part of a siting process.
The next chapter
When community solar discussions begin, compensation is always front and center.
“The first question farmers ask is always, ‘What are you going to pay me?’” Drew Pierson, senior director of sustainability at BlueWave Solar said. Discussions then quickly move to land planning. “Farmers are excited to embrace new ways of doing things,” he said.
BlueWave’s project at Knowlton Farms will include a community solar component that serves subscribers throughout National Grid territory in Massachusetts, and it will involve deploying agrivoltaic strategies for grazing cows and for growing pumpkins, strawberries, and leafy greens. For the project, BlueWave has hired a Natural Resources Conservation Service soil consultant and a farm manager who can act as a go-between for the solar project manager, the farmer, and the state agencies.
Under the 20-year partnership, BlueWave is also investing in Knowlton Farm’s irrigation pumps and fitting its animal shelter with solar and battery storage that the farm can use to charge its farm equipment and its electric fencing.
“This is the next chapter of solar,” Pierson said. It helps the farmer, it helps the environment, and for municipalities, it generates a predictable tax payment, he added.
Many farmers have already started using solar energy for their own generation because farming can be energy-intensive, Darrin Youker, director of state government affairs for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said, adding that he noticed an uptick in queries from farmers who were being approached by solar developers about two years ago.
The Solar Energy Industries Association has produced several case studies that demonstrate the feasibility of dual-use solar development. Several universities, including Ohio State, Purdue University and Oregon State, are also currently conducting research into how dual-use solar can be deployed in crop production, but the concept of dual-use solar is still new to many farmers.
Increasingly, it looks like community solar will be key to farmers’ companion planting practices as the U.S. races to achieve a net-zero economy.