As Solar Projects Move Forward, Land Renters Will Lose The Most


According to the Nature Conservancy, 6.7 gigawatts of solar power will be put up in Indiana over the next five years. More than 5 million houses could use that much power. If it were to happen, the state would rank fourth in the country for solar growth, after Texas, California, and Florida.

Over the next few years, solar and wind power will have to work faster to meet utility company goals. Green energy made up only 17% of energy last year, but utility companies want that number to rise to 65% by 2040.

But utility-scale solar farms need room to make that much power—about seven acres are needed to make one megawatt of power.

Solar project builders have been working with farmers like Chad Petty to get their projects off the ground.

They live and work in Fairbanks, Indiana, right in the middle of a big solar project. For a living, he both owns and rents out farms.

Petty speaks for the 39% of American farmers who rent land from landowners. These farmers will lose the most when solar companies come calling.

He has lost 400 acres of farmland to solar panels so far.

Petty depended on that land to make a living, but since he wasn’t the owner of that land, he didn’t get paid more for working with a solar producer.

He said, “I’ve had to be more aggressive about buying land that comes up for sale.” “You have to pay a little more now that more guys are losing.” It gets a little more competitive as a business.”

People asked Petty’s parents to host panels in their fields, but his dad said no when they told him the work would damage his dirt. His mother, on the other hand, was all for it.

He said, “There’s nothing worse than looking at land that you’ve farmed your whole life and built a house right next to because you thought you’d always work it.” “Now you’re the bottom of the barrel.”

Developers who want to put solar panels on farms usually don’t need or want the whole field. Instead, they use a section right in the middle and leave the edges, which have the least efficient soil, to the farmer.

Some other problems also show up. Hans Schmitz, leader for soil health and climate smart agriculture at Purdue Extension, says that Indiana has a lot of what the USDA calls “prime farmland.”

He said, “It’s not enough to just be able to grow good crops; there are maps out there that show where the USDA says is prime farmland.” “And whenever panels talk about those, there are problems.”

The health of the soil is changed by panels that are in place for an average of 30 years.

“Anytime you have bare soil under panels, you are degrading the soil to the highest degree possible,” he said. “You are risking erosion and losing organic matter, and at the end of the life of the solar panels, you will return a really degraded, awful situation to the landowner.”

It is suggested that developers put cover crops under the panels to keep the soil healthy while the panels are being installed, but they are not required to do so.

Indeed, Petty said that the builders didn’t try to put cover crops in one of his fields until late spring of last year. In the end, the seeds were washed away.

If you want an option, landowners like wind turbines better than solar panels because they leave less of a footprint, but they do have some problems.

Schmitz said that people in the farming community are less pessimistic. “When it comes to wind turbines, there are different types of risks, such as shadow flicker for the neighbors and the ability for wind turbines to cause some disturbance in weather forecasting and soon-to-be severe weather forecasting.”

They cost more than solar cells and can’t be put in as many good places. Compared to solar development, wind turbine development has slowed down a lot across the state.

Schmitz thinks that farmers and developers should think about how putting panels in fields affects the growth of food and energy.

He said, “The question is a tradeoff of whether we would rather make the energy that powers our grid or the energy that feeds us and gives us the fuels we use to get around here.”

With all of these problems, why do developers keep going after fields where solar panels could be put?

As the biggest solar producer in the state with over $3 billion worth of projects, Doral Renewables’ Kevin Parzyck is the senior vice president for special projects. He said that when they look for land, they look at three things.

First, how much sun the land gets. Second, how close it is to power lines that can connect the energy to the grid. Third, local zoning rules and how people feel about them.

“That third one is always the big challenge that comes up over time, because it’s what will really change a community,” he said. “It’s possible that it could go bad or good.”

Parzyck said that at this point in the process, they often need to get a lot of landowners to agree with the idea so that it can still happen even if some landowners don’t.

“People rarely say ‘No,’ because if they do, the whole project is over,” he said. “Most of the time, you can find a way around it.”

He also said that the number of people who sign up to host solar panels isn’t always the same as the number who actually do it. This is because of things like location and how the panels are set up to get the most sun.

“At the end of the day, you won’t put panels in wetlands or forests because you don’t want to cut down trees. There are setbacks and landowners who don’t want to do this or that, so you end up only covering 20% of the land with panels.”

Doral said that their projects bring money to places where agriculture is the main source of income.

“We have technicians who will be working on the project for a long time. They live in the area and are already working there,” he said. “The area keeps getting money from people who have to come in and do things like plow roads, fix panels, fix fences, cut the grass, etc.” That means money is coming in.

On the other hand, many farmers like Petty want to switch to green energy, so it’s not easy.

“I think we should try new ways to get power because, well, we’re going to run out of them at some point,” he said. “But it kind of feels like removing your nose to spite your face.”

Let’s go to the Nature Conservancy unit in Indiana. Sean Mobley, a senior policy assistant for climate and clean energy, said that their main goal is to help developers use land in a good way.

That’s because of where they’re put, he said. “The Nature Conservancy would be the first to say that not all clean energy projects are good clean energy projects.”

The Conservancy’s Mine the Sun program tries to get companies to put solar panels on brownfields and old mines all over the state. Brownfields are pieces of polluted industrial land that have been left empty and can’t be used for anything else.

He explained, “We’re finding acres across the state where you don’t have to move those acres out of traditional row crop agriculture. This is important for an agriculture-based state like Indiana.”

In addition, they want companies to look into agrivoltaics and colocation. Agrivoltaics is a way for farmers to keep farming while still using solar panels.

“A wind turbine takes up a quarter of that acre. Why not use solar power to power the rest of it?” he asked. It’s important to find the right places in the state to do sharing.

Mobley says that everyone benefits when coders think about these effects on the community and the environment when making decisions.

“Studies have shown that this leads to projects being finished on time and with fewer delays, which saves money and raises the return on investment,” he said.

Farmers like Petty could work on more land if this kind of work goes forward, and more clean energy could be put in to help protect the earth.

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