Planners wary of using farmland for solar arrays
All things being equal, David Elvin, a senior planner with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, says he would rather not see solar arrays go up on fertile fields.
“We have some of the best farmland in the country here — and if some of that is being put into solar use that land is not being put into crops,” he said.
But if the choice a farmer faces is between selling the land to a developer and leasing it for ground-mounted photovoltaic panels, that’s another story.
Philip Korman, executive director of farming advocacy group Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, said he has been seeing more farmers consider that option for their land.
He believes solar electricity production can be part of the mix in helping farms survive.
“A farmer does need to make a living and keeping farms viable is incredibly important,” he said. “At the same time, no one wants to see fertile land go unused.”
If farmers do use some of their fields for solar panels, “it is really important that whatever structures they put up need to be able to come down,” according to Korman. Some communities like Whately, he said, are putting measures in place to make sure that fields used for solar panels can someday be returned to agriculture.
Elvin notes that if farmers go that route, the decision is not irreversible.
“Solar is a temporary use in some respects,” said Elvin. Even with a 20-year lease, as is the typical deal for solar arrays sprouting up around western Massachusetts, the land can still be returned to agriculture some day. Photovoltaic panels have a given life, after which they must be replaced.
“Arguably, 20 years isn’t that long a period,” Elvin said, and solar arrays preserve the viability of land for growing crops.
“We don’t know where we are going to be in 20 or 50 years and one of the things we are working on is a food system plan,” he said. “From our perspective, (solar installations) keep the land open.”
These considerations aside, “most planners would first like to see PV go on rooftops,” according to Elvin. In that way, photovoltaic panels are closer to where the electricity is consumed, they are not taking up open space and structures that use electricity are almost by definition close to the distribution grid.
Solar panels are going on more and more buildings around the state. But still, “it is more costly to put panels on a roof than to stake them in a field, especially if you are doing a large-scale development,” Elvin said.
Installations getting cheaper
Haskell Werlin, of Solar Design Associates in Harvard, said his company does a wide variety of solar installations on rooftops, on land both public and private. The price of rooftop installations has come down, he said.
“Once you establish a big enough infrastructure and the industry matures, you are going to get a lot lower labor costs,” Werlin said. “We used to take two or three days to do a system on a rooftop. Now it takes a day or half a day.”
As for the compatibility of solar arrays with agriculture, Werlin said sometimes devoting part of their land to generating solar electricity gives farmers the boost they need to stay afloat.
“There are conflicts, but also cooperation,” when it comes to weighing the tradeoffs in land use, said Werlin.
“A lot of farms are having a really hard time making it,” he said. “If they have 40 or 50 acres and they put 5 or 10 acres into solar and generate enough income so they can continue to farm, that’s a really good outcome.”
Elvin said turning fields into solar arrays is very tempting given the current subsidies and incentives for solar electricity.
“There are cases where farmers are getting nice lease deals and it’s a lot easier to grow solar than it is to grow corn,” he said. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but I think the market is saying that it’s worth it for farmers, especially with all the pressures they are facing.”
Those pressures include the fact that many longtime farmers are aging and “there are just fewer young farmers coming up.”
The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is working with towns to create zoning bylaws to help guide large-scale solar development. These include requirements for screening to address the aesthetic concerns of neighbors.
Elvin said he has worked with Hatfield and Williamsburg on requirements that proposals for solar arrays include computer-generated perspectives of what they will look like from a number of angles.
Elvin also advocates decommissioning clauses that spell out the solar developer’s responsibilities for dismantling an array at the end of a lease agreement.
The planning commission is “shying away” from advocating bylaws to regulate rooftop installations. This is a case in which less government interference is better if the goal is to promote rooftop solar production.
Installers “already have to go to the building inspector a couple of times, and the electrical inspector,” said Elvin. “More regulations make it even more difficult.” The so-called “soft costs” of meeting all the requirements for putting solar panels on a roof can already add up to 20 percent of the project, he said. “Adding another layer of regulation could make them prohibitive” in some cases.
Farmers, he said, are also increasingly putting solar panels on their farm buildings. This makes a lot of sense, he said, especially for energy-intensive operations like dairy.
Generally speaking, Elvin said, the more solar electricity we can generate the better.
“It doesn’t burn anything and we need to stop burning things.”
As a land-use planner, though, he feels that “in most cases” tillable soil is not a good place to put up solar panels, but doing so can make sense in some cases.
Meanwhile, Korman noted that farmers in the Pioneer Valley are competing in a global market and even though they produce high-quality crops, they are not able to realize the economies of scale of competitors in other parts of the world farming on huge fields, whose organization is devoted to engaging the community to build a local food economy, is seeing more farmers using innovative ways to create new revenue streams through solar, especially by putting panels on farm structures and on the less productive parts of their land.