Large-Scale Solar and Agriculture
The rural Midwest added 2.3 gigawatts of wind and solar in 2017 and clean energy (including energy efficiency, renewable energy, alternative transportation fuels) became a central driver of the rural economy. With energy from solar photovoltaics (PV) on track to cost even less than electricity from wind within the next five years, utilities and solar developers are queuing up to build large-scale solar PV farms in rural areas. Given how new this large-scale development is to Wisconsin, there is some concern about impacts of solar farms on agricultural lands where the majority of development is proposed. Briefly, here is information to address concerns raised.
With regard to agriculture, solar is a low-impact development that can provide water quality protection, soil enhancement, habitat value, agricultural opportunities, and economic development.
Soil Protection: Solar development minimizes grading and soil compaction and works well for planting native vegetation that prevents erosion, builds soils, conserves water and creates habitat for birds and other animals. Pollinator-friendly plantings on solar farms are being proposed and developed in Wisconsin, and pollinators benefit many agricultural sectors including fruit, vegetable and cranberry growers. Minnesota, Illinois and others have state standards and guidance for vegetation on solar sites that Wisconsin can review.
Agricultural Production: Solar and agriculture can be co-located. Research shows the potential to alleviate agriculture displacement by allowing solar arrays, vegetation, and livestock to occupy the same land area, NREL, ScientificAmerican,UMass-Amherst, NC-State. Photos below show a sunflower farm for biodiesel production in Lake Geneva, WI and sheep grazing along with solar in Vernon County.
Limiting Secondary Development: Solar fits into smart growth by creating a holding pattern for urban expansion and housing development. It maintains previous lands and requires no infrastructure. Most importantly, a solar farm is de-commissioned easily so that the landowner, who leases the land to the solar developer, can return the land (with enhanced soil) to farming in 25-30 years.
Glare, noise and visibility: Glare is not an issue as solar panels are encased in glass with anti-reflective coating, so they are less reflective than water and windows. They make less noise than a refrigerator (45 decibels at 10 meters from inverters) and are low voltage. Large-scale PV electric requires a 6-7 foot fence (NEC 2017 article 691). The concern about preserving the visual aesthetic of rural areas is in the eye of the beholder. While solar farm views are generally limited to the fence and first row of modules, solar will be seen as part of the rural landscape.
Economic Development: Large-scale solar farms create a diversity of income to landowners (those farming the land need to find other land to lease) and to the municipality and county they are located in. Agriculture (corn, soybeans, cattle) is far less competitive in generating comparable returns to solar. The proposed $360 million Badger Hollow Solar Farm on 2,100 acres in Iowa County (0.6% of Iowa county farmland), for example, will create at least 422 jobs locally during construction with over $20 million in earnings (plus secondary economic support to local businesses) and 10 long-term jobs with $50,000-$70,000 in wages. Long-term earnings to the county total over $553,000. With the shared revenue utility aid fund, the townships will receive $500,000 annually and the County $700,000 annually in new tax revenue. Solar farming for this project is a more economic land use (Economic Impact and Land Use Analysis of the Badger Hollow Solar Farm PSCW docket 9697-CE-100).
The ideal sites for large-scale solar are often prime ag land, but, by taking a step back and considering all the factors outlined here, this might be the highest and best use for the land now. A fact sheet addressing land use aspects of large-scale solar development is being developed by UW-Extension.