Farms: At Risk or Filled With Opportunity?
One alternative to slashing forests, of course, is building on farmland. For years, Massachusetts farmers have been getting “a ridiculous number of calls from solar developers,” said Nick d’Arbeloff, vice president of commercial development at SunBug Solar. But most of those calls were about taking one field (or many) out of production to build ground-mount systems, which are the cheapest option. (Farmers in the state and around the country have also increasingly been putting solar panels on barn roofs and marginal lands they’re not using to grow food.)
And while commercial agrivoltaic systems are already in operation in other countries, the use of the technology is still new in the U.S. In addition to Massachusetts, the Department of Energy is also testing the systems in use in Arizona and Oregon. But, so far, updates made to the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program in 2020 have pushed development toward agrivoltaics in the most significant way. The program only allows solar development on agricultural land if the systems are dual-use, requires panels be raised at least 10 feet above ground, shading to cover no more than 50 percent of the field, and provides additional financial incentives to developers that build the systems.
The incentive is key because ground-mounted systems are both cheaper to build and produce more energy per acre, which the owner of the system is paid for sending to the electric grid. Usually the owner of the system (a developer or outside entity) pays the farmer for the use of the land; d’Arbeloff at SunBug said that rate is typically between $15,000 to $20,000 per megawatt annually. A megawatt might require five acres using ground-mount but eight or nine in a dual-use system. So by paying more for dual-use installations, the state is essentially making up the difference.
Since the changes, eight dual-use projects have applied to participate in the program, with one up and running, six approved for construction, and many others expected. While the projects are commercial, many will also likely serve as study sites for a research project proposed by University of Massachusetts’s Clean Energy Extension, which has been studying dual-use systems at its own facilities for about a decade. Now, the team will be able to track how various types of agriculture fare under solar panels—from grazing animals to cranberry bogs and vegetable crops like squash—and collect real data on whether farmers and the environment benefit. That data could inform future conversations about land-use tradeoffs, said Dwayne Breger, a professor at UMass who is leading the effort.
So far, studies show some crops, like lettuce and blackberries, fare well in the shade and may even benefit, especially in hotter regions; other crops, like broccoli, kale, and peppers, show reduced yields. Grazing sheep or cattle is the most common and well-established practice with dual-use panels. Less energy is also produced per acre versus building ground-mounted panels, but Breger thinks the evidence so far still shows a net win.
“The sum of the benefits to agriculture, even if yields are reduced . . . is still greater than could be achieved if you had all solar or all agriculture on that land,” Breger said. “And there would also be some synergies there.”
SunBug completed the first dual-use project within the SMART program on farmland owned by Nate Tassinari in Monson, Massachusetts. Tassinari is a banker and self-proclaimed “wannabe farmer” who lives on land that was farmed by his family for three generations. He put his solar installation on a one-acre hayfield, where his cousins, who farm right next door, grow feed for their dairy cows.
Several years ago, Tassinari said, a large ground-mount project was developed in town on “a huge cornfield that had been in corn my entire childhood.” Residents hated the project so much, he said, they passed a local ordinance that limited the size of future systems. In his mind, a dual-use system was “the perfect example of meeting people in the middle,” he said. Tassinari used his resources and financial know-how to finance a cutting-edge system himself. It means he will make what he says is about five times more profit than farmers who are paid by developers who own the systems.
“I have 150 acres, and only one will have solar on it, but the benefits of the economics of that solar farm allow me to preserve all the rest of the land and not have to break it up for house lots and other things,” he said. “It was really about land preservation.”
That’s how American Farmland Trust (AFT), a leading farmland preservation organization with a large presence in New England, sees it. “A lot of organizations took a stance initially where they said solar should stay off of green space. We thought that was going to be potentially counterproductive,” said Emily Cole, AFT’s New England deputy director. Instead, AFT embraced the idea of solar as a means to keep farmers on their land early on. “What we really work hard on is developing smart siting guidelines,” she said.
AFT runs a Smart Solar Siting Partnership Project for New England, which includes guidelines for dual-use projects. “We want to ensure that our best farmland continues to be farmed first and foremost,” she said. “There is the potential for solar siting on farmland to be another source of income for farmers who may be facing a pretty difficult economic time. So, it’s an opportunity to diversify and potentially support other activities on that operation and really increase the tenure of the farmer on that land.”