As Vermont continues to seek to invest in sustainable energy, interest in on-farm solar generation has grown. (It’s probably no surprise that some of the attributes that make land good for farming also can make it desirable for solar arrays.) For many communities, this has raised concerns about loss of valuable farm land and impacts to the visual landscape. Kimberly Hagen of the Center’s Pasture Program worked with Chris Sargent of Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission and Alex DePillis of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, to learn about the considerations that go into combining solar arrays with active farming, and then translated that into a short Guide to Farming-Friendly Solar. What they found is that this is a fertile area with a great deal of exciting potential to support locally produced food and preserve the working landscape, while addressing energy needs and improving farms’ financial viability. Here we share a few of the Guide’s highlights and recommendations.
Preserving the Best Farmland is Key
The most significant challenge is balancing the siting needs of solar with the needs of protecting the best and most productive Vermont soils. Sometimes the ideal location for an installation can be on agriculturally significant soil. But balance is possible, say the guide’s authors, and they offer a few suggestions for how this can be accomplished. For instance, “preference should be given to solar installations that utilize existing structures (such as the rooftop solar installation at the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph …). … Several farms have married on-farm solar with rotational grazing of livestock. Another has located their solar system in a buffer area required as part of their organic certification.”
Solar and Current Use and Conserved Land
Special considerations may apply for land currently designated as in “current use.” taxation. As it says in the guide, “To be eligible for use-value appraisal (the “current use program”), a solar array must be owned or leased by the farmer, with half or more of the electricity used on the farm. The land on which a solar array is placed cannot be enrolled in current use unless the facility itself is eligible.” Likewise, land in a conservation easement also can bring another element to consider. “Generally, (easement holders) support solar meeting up to 100% of the farm’s usage, however they also provide guidance as to the footprint of the solar, both as a percentage of the land base of the farm and as a total acreage. They may also recognize the potential for agricultural activity to occur within a solar facility. “ As in most situations, the recommendation is to communicate early and often with all whose programs are involved with the property.
Consider Needs & Options Carefully
As one farmer profiled among the case studies says, “The farmer knows the land and probably has a good idea of how they want it used. You also have to think about whether the income from this will offset the loss of that land. And whether the array is to be set up for machinery to pass through too or clustered closer together – but then losing some ability for vegetation to grow beneath due to being shaded out. Lots to think about.” Because the introduction of panels into the landscape will dramatically change the land, it’s worth thinking through carefully before breaking ground.
Read the full report for case studies and more details.
Read a recent article about a combined pollinator project and solar array in Addison County.
2015 Vermont Public Radio story about the debate over solar and farmland, featuring one of the farms profiled in the guide.
Seeking help assessing your own land and its suitability for solar for on-farm energy generation? Contact Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org or Alex DePillis at email@example.com.