Guest Columnist Jesse Robertson-Dubois: Putting the farming into solar farms

  • Sheep graze and rest at a solar farm at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in September.

Published: 12/27/2021 6:22:35 AM
Modified: 12/27/2021 6:22:08 AM

I am a farmer and conservationist, and an early advocate for dual-use agrisolar in Massachusetts. Like many, I once felt that solar belongs on rooftops, not farmland. But that was before I learned about agrisolar systems. Also called agrivoltaics, these are hybrid systems optimized for both agricultural and photovoltaic production. My change in perspective grew from my agricultural roots.

Part of my job as a farmer is to notice details about living things. First, I began noticing that roadside solar arrays produce a microclimate that allows grass to “green up” earlier in the spring, and to keep growing into the winter. You can see this for yourself, today: drive by an array and look at the difference between the grass under the panels versus the grass in the aisles. You can usually see the same microclimate effect in August, based on water availability.

Once I’d noticed, it was obvious that solar arrays could offer advantages to a sheep farmer. The months when the microclimate helps grass growth are the same months when livestock benefit from shelter from cold rain or hot sun. And crops? Well, for almost the entirety of the 20th century, shade tobacco was the signature crop here in the Connecticut River Valley.

What food crops could be grown in this microclimate, and possibly even better than in open fields? I began to read about ground-mount photovoltaics and agrisolar. I learned that in other countries, notably in Europe and Japan, agrisolar systems have been in use for decades. They work for both livestock and crops.

The second compelling observation came from my work with American Farmland Trust. Massachusetts has the oldest statewide agricultural preservation restriction (APR) program in the nation. But after decades of effort, roughly 85% of our farmland remains unprotected. Now another generation of landowners has reached retirement age and we are facing a massive shift in farmland ownership. The uncomfortable truth is that we aren’t winning this fight.

Abandonment is a major source of farmland loss on less-productive farms. On our most fertile ground, skyrocketing prices have all but erased the value of APRs and have priced land out of the reach of most farmers’ incomes. Farmland access, consolidation and non-farm development remain major risk factors for a sustainable agricultural economy.

At the same time, I heard conservation colleagues bemoaning all the money solar developers were spending to “destroy” farmland. How the developers are “preying on” landowners facing generational transitions or economic challenges. You’ve heard the arguments.

Honestly, talk of solar arrays “destroying farmland” sounds silly to most farmers. We routinely build hoophouses, also known as hightunnels, and dismantle them again when farm operations change. Just like solar arrays, they are essentially just a lot of metal poles pounded into the soil, with buried electrical conduit to connect to the grid. They often have gravel driveways, and stormwater management considerations. They are pretty much the same thing at the soil level, it’s just a question of scale.

But what about the money? Aren’t the solar developers competing for land? While the passive lease income is certainly important, the primary motivation for landowners is usually the assets they will leave to their heirs. If not leased for photovoltaics, the land might be rented to a farmer on a year-to-year basis, or it might be sold, but a solar lease is a generation-skipping commitment.

This was my eureka moment. Conventional solar leases are already being used by landowning families as a multi-decade land conservation tool, and better agrisolar system designs could also be incubators of agricultural innovation and economic development.

As support began to grow for agrisolar in the commonwealth’s renewable energy incentives, we built in safeguards to ensure good agricultural compatibility: higher panel heights, lower-density panel spacing, more sunlight at the ground level, simple agricultural fencing — or no fencing — instead of chain link. The University of Massachusetts provides oversight to ensure that agrisolar systems will meet the needs of real, commercial agriculture.

Unfortunately, many people are more concerned with optics than outcomes. Some want smaller arrays, but bigger fields are better for farmers. Others want more research, even though farmers can sort out the designs and improve the cropping strategies through on-farm trial and error far more quickly than scientific studies.

Time is in short supply when it comes to the climate. Fortunately, the first agrisolar arrays in Massachusetts are finally beginning to be built. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make our civilization more regenerative and sustainable. Let’s not quit before we get started.

Jesse Robertson-DuBois, of Northfield, has managed farms across Massachusetts and served as a board member and employee of several land trusts He is associated with current efforts to install dual-use agrisolar photovoltaic arrays on 70+ acres of farmland in Northfield. His opinions are his own.

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