Precious farmland under solar threat

A drone view shows solar panels as they stand on Duttlinger’s farmland that he leased to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC in Wheatfield, Indiana. — Reuters

DAVE Duttlinger’s first thought when he saw a dense band of yellowish-brown dust smearing the sky above his Indiana farm was: I warned them this would happen.

About 180ha of his fields near Wheatfield, Indiana, are covered in solar panels and related machinery – land that in April 2019 Duttlinger leased to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC, for one of the largest solar developments in the Midwest.

On that blustery spring afternoon in 2022, Duttlinger said, his phone rang with questions from frustrated neighbours: Why is dust from your farm inside my truck? Inside my house? Who should I call to clean it up?

According to Duttlinger’s solar lease, Dunns Bridge said it would use “commercially reasonable efforts to minimise any damage to and disturbance of growing crops and crop land caused by its construction activities” outside the project site and “not remove topsoil” from the property itself.

Sandy soil is seen eroding from the base of solar panels located on Duttlinger’s farmland. — ReutersSandy soil is seen eroding from the base of solar panels located on Duttlinger’s farmland. — Reuters

Still, sub-contractors graded Duttlinger’s fields to assist the building of roads and installation of posts and panels, he said, despite his warnings that it could make the land more vulnerable to erosion.

Crews reshaped the landscape, spreading fine sand across large stretches of rich topsoil, Duttlinger said.

Much of the land beneath the solar panels is covered in yellow-brown sand, where no plants grow.

“I’ll never be able to grow anything on that field again,” the farmer said.

About one-third of his approximately 485ha farm – where his family grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa for cattle – has been leased.

The Dunns Bridge Solar project is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources LLC, the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from wind and solar.

Duttlinger said when he approached NextEra about the damage to his land, the company said it would review any remedial work needed at the end of its contract in 2073, as per the terms of the agreement.

Duttlinger looking at the solar farm on the land that he leased to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC. — ReutersDuttlinger looking at the solar farm on the land that he leased to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC. — Reuters

NextEra declined to comment on the matter or on what future commitments it made to Duttlinger.

Project developer Orion Renewable Energy Group LLC directed questions to NextEra.

The solar industry is pushing into the US Midwest, drawn by cheaper land rents, access to electric transmission, and a wealth of federal and state incentives.

The region also has what solar needs: wide-open fields.

A renewable energy boom risks damaging some of America’s richest soils in key farming states like Indiana.

Some of Duttlinger’s farm, including parts now covered in solar panels, is on land classified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the most productive for growing crops.

For landowners like Duttlinger, the promise of profits is appealing. Solar leases in Indiana and surrounding states can offer US$900 to US$1,500 an acre per year in land rents, with annual rate increases. In comparison, farmland rent in top corn and soybean producers Indiana, Illinois and Iowa averaged about US$251 per acre in 2023, USDA data shows.

Farmland Partners Inc, a publicly traded farmland real estate investment trust (REIT) has leased about 3,640ha nationwide to solar firms. Much of that ground is highly productive, said executive chairman Paul Pittman.

A power station collecting energy from solar panels sits on Duttlinger’s farmland that he leased to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC in Wheatfield, Indiana. — ReutersA power station collecting energy from solar panels sits on Duttlinger’s farmland that he leased to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC in Wheatfield, Indiana. — Reuters

“Do I think it’s the best use of that land? Probably not. But our investors would kill us if we didn’t pursue this,” he said.

Some renewable energy developers said not all leases become solar projects. Some are designing their sites to make it possible to grow crops between panels, while others, like Doral Renewables LLC, said they use livestock to graze around the panels as part of their land management.

Developers also argue that in the Midwest, where more than one-third of the US corn crop is used for ethanol production, solar energy is key for powering future electric vehicles.

Some agricultural economists and agronomists counter that taking even small amounts of the best cropland out of production for solar development and damaging valuable topsoil impacts future crop potential in the United States.

Common solar farm construction practices, including clearing and grading large sections of land, also can lead to significant erosion and major runoff of sediment into waterways without proper remediation, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department.

Solar development comes amid increasing competition for land: in 2023, there were 76.2 million – or nearly 8% – fewer acres in farms than in 1997, USDA data shows, as farmland is converted for residential, commercial and industrial use.

USDA said that urban sprawl and development are currently bigger contributors to farmland loss than solar, citing reports from the Department of Energy and agency-funded research.

No one knows how much cropland nationwide is currently under solar panels or leased for possible future development. Land deals are typically private transactions.

Scientists at the United States Geological Survey and the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been compiling a database of existing solar facilities across the country. Work on the US Large-Scale Solar Photovoltaic Database began in 2020 and includes data on 3,699 facilities in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

While that project is incomplete and ongoing, it was found that around 0.02% of all cropland in the continental US intersected in some way with large-scale, ground-based solar panel sites as of 2021.

The total power capacity of the solar operations tracked in the data set represents over 60 gigawatts of electricity power.

In the following two years, solar capacity has nearly tripled, according to a December 2023 report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Wood Mackenzie.

Jerry Hatfield, former director of USDA Agricultural Research Service’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, said the potential impact of solar projects in farm-heavy counties can be “concerning”.

“It’s not the number of acres converting to solar,” he said.

“It’s the quality of the land coming out of production, and what that means for local economies, state economies and the country’s future abilities for crop production.”

By 2050, to meet the Biden administration’s decarbonisation targets, the US will need up to 1,570 gigawatts of electricity energy capacity from solar.

While the land needed for ground-based solar development to achieve this goal won’t be even by state, it is not expected to exceed 5% of any state’s land area, except the smallest state of Rhode Island, where it could reach 6.5%, by 2050, according to the Energy Department’s Solar Futures Study, which was published in 2021.

Researchers at American Farmland Trust, a non-profit farmland protection organisation which champions what it calls Smart Solar, forecast last year that 83% of new solar energy development in the United States will be on farm and ranchland, unless current government policies change.

Nearly half would be on the nation’s best land for producing food, fibre, and other crops, it warned.

Some renewable developers and solar energy firms counter that the industry’s use of farmland is too small to impact domestic food production overall and should be balanced with the need to decarbonise the US energy market in the face of climate change.

Indiana farmer Norm Welker says he got a good deal leasing 60% of his farmland to a solar project than he would have growing corn, with prices dipping to three-year lows this year.

“We’ve got mounds of corn, we’re below the cost of production, and right now, if you’re renting land to grow corn – you’re losing money,” Welker said.

“This way, my economic circumstances are very good.” — Reuters

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