Solar Leasing Brings Complex Questions

Agricultural communities are wrestling with the implications of utility-scale solar as the tax incentives of the Inflation Reduction Act spur surging investment in solar projects that cover thousands of acres. If the federal goals for renewable energy are met, as many as 10 million acres of land will be converted to solar generation. The best solar development sites resemble a flat farm field, with American Farmland Trust (AFT) estimating that 83 percent of new solar will occur on existing farmland. What does this mean for farmers and their livelihoods? Farm Commons worked with AFT recently to help farmers put themselves in the driver’s seat when considering leasing land to a utility-scale solar project.

While many farmers welcome additional revenue-generating opportunities on their land from solar, other producers are worried that solar development will harm agricultural production, security, and community life. A recent article by Civil Eats  outlines difficult trade-offs including the potentially increasing difficulty of new farmers to access the quality land they need to get started. Particularly chaffing to rural America, much of the decision-making about where utility-scale solar projects land is negotiated behind closed doors. Individual farmers often do not have the leverage, legal representation, or collective organizing potential that would allow them to advocate in a stronger voice.

From a community perspective, one way to shift the balance of power is to ensure that farmers have access to fair, contemplative, and accurate information about what’s in a lease granting access to the farmer’s land for utility-scale solar production.  Paperwork is powerful! When farmers know their options, they are better able to advocate for their interests.

In particular, many farmers are interested in “agrivoltaics” which is commonly understood as new methods of merging agricultural production with solar energy generation. The Civil Eats article above shares the example of sheep grazing under solar panels, but with the caveat that sheep are a tiny portion of livestock production in the United States. Cattle and crop production are much larger portions of agricultural markets with much more potential to actually merge production of solar energy and food. But adapting infrastructure for larger animals and mechanical tillage or harvesting use often necessitates raising the panels farther off the ground, changing the spacing of the panels, and modifying materials and hardware. These adaptations can be expensive.

Individual farmers can ask for and expect adjustments to leasing terms that allow them to continue to use the land for agriculture. The landowners, individually or collectively, are in the best position to do this when they know exactly what agricultural purpose they want to pursue and what adaptations they need to be successful. This information can be hard to come by, as agricultural production beneath solar panels is still emerging. Yet, as projects march forward, farmers may need to make quick decisions.

In all cases, farmers are best served with access to thorough education on what these solar leasing documents can create. Farm Commons’ Associate Director, Erin Hannum, is the lead author on “Solar Leasing: A Guide for Agricultural Landowners in the Pacific Northwest,” recently published by American Farmland Trust. This thorough guide is a timely resource that will build farmers’ capacity to negotiate for their interests in a utility-scale solar leasing project. Recognizing that “the law” doesn’t answer the vital question of what is right for an individual or the individual’s community, the guide incorporates regular reflection and decision-making to steward that process.

Paperwork is the most powerful when it is an excuse for farmers to think deeply about what they want, what they need, and how they want to work with others. When we memorialize those intentions on paper, we can build the world we want. Now, this is more important than ever as solar infrastructure stands to have its biggest year yet. The same should be true for farmers involved in these projects, as well.