solar panels on farm

The Feb. 5 edition of Lancaster Farming provided a real study in contrasts.

On Page A2, an article entitled “Solar Farm Generates Emotional Hearings” chronicled the real anguish that farmers and others feel when they see a significant land-use change proposed, in this case an 850-acre solar farm in their midst.

On Page A9, an op-ed from the Solar Energy Industries Association emphasized the job-creation opportunities solar energy can and is providing in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the two articles seem to be talking past one another completely, as are many of us these days when taking sides on the solar energy issue.

Solar is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, despite the industry’s strong preference for large-scale utility solar that usually displaces ongoing farming.

There are examples all across the country where solar and farming are coexisting on the same land, the same acres, and generating farm-saving profits as well as climate-mitigating green energy production.

The key difference is that farmers are not being forced to choose between selling out or fighting solar away. In fact, with dual-use solar, the solar arrays are saving farms and farming jobs.

A recent article in the newsletter Agritecture provides the example of Jack’s Solar Garden farm in Colorado, an early adopter of dual-use solar.

The project features 8-foot and 6-foot solar panel arrays mounted over row crops on 24 acres of what had been a hay and alfalfa farm for 50 years.

The spacing of the panels and their ability to adjust to follow the sun allows enough light for robust crop growth, including tomatoes, turnips, carrots, squash, beets, lettuce, kale, chard and peppers.

The panels are high enough to allow a tractor to work below them. The project also generates enough electricity to power 300 private homes. In states where there is community solar and net metering, this is annual money in the farmer’s pocket, without having to sell the farm.

Unfortunately, the conversation in Pennsylvania continues to be sell out or pass up the environmental and fiscal rewards of going solar.

Across the Delaware River in New Jersey, legislators passed a bill last summer that supports experimental demonstration farms where vegetables and grains are being grown under solar panels, and researchers from Rutgers University — their land grant institution — are measuring both the impact of solar on farm yields and income streams.

In Massachusetts, farmers are experimenting with growing grains and many different specialty crops, both for environmental and economic gains.

Longer-running research programs at Arizona State University are showing a moister micro-climate beneath panels, reducing the impacts of sun and drought, the need for irrigation, and reducing water consumption by 15%.

The panels also protect crops from hard rains, sleet and hail, provide shade for livestock, and shade for farmworkers. Sheep grazers are already in the forefront of dual-use solar, and other livestock grazers can follow with taller mounted panels.

Pennsylvania should stop arguing within itself and look to other states for these win-win ideas. We should pass legislation to adopt community solar with net metering so farmers can have an additional income stream.

We should work with municipal groups to come up with siting and designs that minimize industrial landscapes and prioritize dual-use over single-use to protect farms and farming.

We should make it easier to finance dual-use solar for farms willing to be pioneers like Jack’s Solar Garden.

Pennsylvania has a number of small solar firms willing to work on smaller installations and accommodate continued farming operations. If you’re a farmer who would be interested, contact Pasa. We’re listening hard to all sides to deliver for you.

Lancaster Farming

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