A recent article in Lancaster Farming describes a huge multi-county solar project being developed on seven sites over more than 1,800 farmed acres by Americas at Lightsource bp, a subsidiary of British Petroleum, enthusiastically endorsed by Pennsylvania state government.
At the very end of the article is a hint that there may be tradeoffs involved: “Solar arrays can offer farmers new opportunities to graze sheep and make pollinator plantings, but critics say the projects are eyesores that restrict agricultural uses of the land.”
At Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, with 7,500 farmer and sustainable agriculture-supporting members across the commonwealth, we applaud the shift from fossil fuel-based energy to sustainable energy sources like solar. However, we don’t believe this has to be an either-or proposition. There is increasing evidence that active farming and solar energy can coexist.
Some of our members are grazing sheep (on their own farms or under contract on other farms) under solar panels, part of a national movement promoted by the American Solar Grazing Association.
Pioneers in New York state are pairing pastured poultry with solar arrays.
Researchers at Arizona State are experimenting in the field with dual-use solar arrays to allow enough visible light through panels to grow crops, including grains and vegetables.
Innovators in the Netherlands have been successfully growing grapes under agrivoltaic arrays that not only work, but give growers a market advantage, since extra shade means they mature later and hit the market when other grapes are gone.
Solar and grazing produce many co-benefits as well — pasture grasses and soils sequester carbon, keep bare soils from eroding into streams, reduce on-farm inputs and costs for herbicides and fertilizers, and save on maintenance mowing (grazers do the work).
Pennsylvania should be giving farmers more choices when it comes to solar. Right now, it’s utility-scale solar or nothing. Passing a community solar bill like many states have done would allow farmers to use smaller-scale solar for their own uses, or sell energy to neighboring farmers or their local community.
This would include all the advantages of solar — clean energy, extra income for farmers — without displacing their agricultural operations. It’s a clear win-win.
Addressing climate change is critical, but so too is food security. We can find a way to support both through on-farm solar done at the appropriate (smaller) scale.