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Solar Energy Is Providing a Critical Lifeline to Midwest Farmers

2018 saw a 30 percent increase in farm bankruptcies across six Midwest states, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, as farmers face weather, climate, and geopolitical challenges that threaten their viability. Unfortunately, 2019 has been an even bigger disaster for Midwest farmers. Historic floods and persistent trade wars have added more straws to the camel’s back.

But solar power has been a growing bright spot for the Midwest farm balance sheets. Farmers in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa are turning to solar energy as a way to supplement their income and survive the challenges posed by things outside their control. Moreover, the relationship between solar and agriculture is one that could generate a smorgasbord of additional benefits, including a cleaner electric grid and new habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies, all while helping stem the tide of farm bankruptcies.

Crain’s Detroit recently reported on this growing trend in Michigan, highlighting the decision by John Forell to devote 6 percent of his 5,000-acre farm to a solar installation. He noted that he expects to earn two to three times more from the solar installation than he would earn from planting crops on that parcel. Similarly, the article quoted Michigan farmer Kent Kraynek, who explained that, “The way the weather is, crop prices are, I can’t hardly make any money. Solar farming is guaranteed income. I don’t have to worry about the weather.”

The policy framework that makes these investments possible for farmers like Forell and Kraynek in Michigan includes new utility regulatory decisions that clarify how developers will be paid by utilities for the solar power they deliver, as well as new rules promulgated under Governor Gretchen Whitmer that allow farmers with solar developments to maintain their eligibility for incentives under the open space preservation program. The solar opportunity for landowners will grow as Michigan’s second largest utility, Consumers Energy, rolls out its plan to develop 5,000 megawatts (MW) of new solar to replace its aging fleet of coal plants.

In Minnesota, the largest source of solar agriculture revenue stems from its community solar program. And as Xcel Energy moves forward with plans to replace its coal fleet with solar, wind, and efficiency, the opportunities will explode. Today, there are more than 700 MW of community solar gardens operating or under construction, with solar lease payments adding up to millions of dollars in annual payments to farmers. Specifically, it is anticipated that community solar projects across roughly 350 sites will result in solar lease payments of $7 million per year or $175 million over 25 years to largely agricultural landowners.

Similarly, Illinois aims to spur development of 3,000 MW of solar projects as part of its Future Energy Jobs Act, the fruits of which are beginning to show up across the rural landscape this year. Hundreds of projects in 98 of the state’s 102 counties were given the green light to receive renewable energy credit (REC) payments by the Illinois Power Agency this spring. The resulting projects will mean hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue for landowners across the state over the coming decades.

Beyond bolstering farm revenues, farmers are discovering important and somewhat unexpected benefits from siting solar projects on their land. In fact, there is considerable evidence that solar on farms creates a virtuous circle of improving land productivity, which also can improve output from the solar system. For example, researchers at Oregon State University measured a 90 percent increase in the production of grazing grasses for sheep and cows under a solar array due to the additional moisture retention in the soil caused by the shading from the solar panels. Meanwhile, researchers are finding evidence that the increased moisture under the panels can then evaporate and cool the panels on days when excess heat is reducing solar electricity production. Community solar developer Nexamp may be the first to create a new business model for livestock owners by “hiring” sheep and cows to graze under its New York-based community solar arrays.

Rural solar development is also becoming a key strategy for combating the very serious loss of pollinators, which are essential to the production of food across the world. By using solar development sites to plant pollinator-friendly plants, landowners are addressing one of the largest contributors to the decline of pollinators—namely, habitat loss. In Minnesota, Fresh Energy’s Center for Pollinators in Energy is working to maximize that potential.

As the benefits of solar become more evident, a growing number of agricultural interests are working with solar developers and others to seek policy changes that will allow these benefits to expand and flourish. This spring, when powerful utility interests in Iowa proposed punitive new fees on solar users, it was the Iowa Pork Producers who stepped in to work with solar advocates in a collaboration that was ultimately successful in blocking the fees.  Midwest Energy News’s Karen Ulenhuth spoke with Jim Hultgren, an Iowa hog farmer who explained that his solar array generates power during the day when he needs it for his operations, and is saving him $4,500 a year.

Can solar power tackle the climate emergency, the farm crisis, and the collapse of pollinators on its own? Maybe not. But the more Midwesterners learn about solar, the more benefits we discover and the more allies we pull into the clean energy tent, and that’s a recipe for moving public opinion and public policy toward meaningful solutions that benefit everyone.