Feeding a growing population and meeting renewable energy demands has brought farmers and solar developers into partnerships centered on land designated for agricultural uses. The wide-open acres of American farmland accounts for just under 40% of the landmass in the United States, making them sought after for PV systems for many reasons. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy has even published a guide for farmers adopting solar power.
“Installing traditional, ground-mounted solar is cheaper and easier than dual-use solar. Single parcel, one payment. You can hide [an array] from the neighbors. The major project hurdle becomes grid interconnection,” said Jake Marley, co-owner and manager of Hyperion Systems, a Massachusetts-based solar installer.
Leasing land for solar projects poses an additional source of income for farmers in a struggling agricultural economy but cuts out potential crop growth on fields covered with panels. Certain states have subsidized farmland when it is kept in agricultural use, but in states that haven’t, farmers have leaned on solar leases to add income. In January, NPR reported that a 300-MW solar project is set for construction on 650 acres of a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
Ground-mounted solar can take land out of agricultural commission for the duration of an array’s lifespan, with some exceptions. In some cases, arrays can be mounted on plots of marginal (or non-producing) land on farms or in pastures.
Dual-use farms can be an avenue for farmers to keep land in crop production while simultaneously cutting energy costs through net metering. Hyperion Systems develops dual-use PV projects exclusively for farmers in the Northeast, where farmland is scarcer than the Midwest. The EPC keeps fertile land available for growing crops by constructing arrays that have raised posts and panels spaced 2 to 4 ft. apart. The spacing lets light hit the ground underneath it, giving crops sun exposure and partial shading. Hyperion has found leafy greens like Swiss chard, lettuce and broccoli grow well under these conditions. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is funding a Hyperion-led research project on crop behavior under partial sunlight.
Renewable energy is a natural fit for the agriculture industry and offers an additional way for farmers to be good stewards of the land. Farmers and installers just need to be strategic in deciding how solar best fits into their ecosystems.