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As solar developments continue, land leasers stand to lose the most

A large development of solar panels going up in Fairbanks, Ind.
Devan Ridgway
A large development of solar panels going up in Fairbanks, Ind.

Indiana is expected to install 6.7 gigawatts of solar capacity over the next five years, according to the Nature Conservancy. That’s enough to power more than 5 million homes. If done, the state would become fourth in the nation for solar growth, behind only Texas, California, and Florida.

And, as the years go on, solar and wind energy generation will need to move faster hit goals set by utility providers. Last year, 17 percent of energy came from renewables, but by 2040, utility providers want that number to be 65 percent.

But utility-scale solar farms need space to generate that kind of power, with about seven acres needed to produce one megawatt of energy.

Solar developers have been coordinating with farmers like Chad Petty to start their projects.

Petty works and lives right in the middle of a large solar development in Fairbanks, Ind. He both owns and rents farmland for his livelihood.

Petty represents the 39 percent of farmers in America who rent farmland from landowners; these farmers stand to lose the most when solar developers come knocking.

So far, he’s lost 400 acres of farmable land to solar panels.

As a renter, Petty relied on that land to make a living, and unlike the owner of that land, he didn’t receive the financial benefits of working with a solar developer.

“I've definitely had to be more aggressive on buying ground that's come up for sale,” he said. “Now you're paying a little bit more because more guys are losing. It becomes a little bit more of a cutthroat business.”

Petty’s parents were approached to host panels in their fields; his father said no when it was made clear the work would affect his topsoil. His mother, on the other hand, was all in.

“Ain't nothing hurts more than watching ground that you've farmed literally all your life, you know, that you put a house up right across from and thought you'd always work it,” he said. “Now you're working the dregs.”

When developers use farmland as space for solar panels, they often don’t want or need the whole field; instead, they typically use a portion directly in the middle and leave the edges, the least efficient soil in the field, to the farmer.

Other issues crop up, too; according to Hans Schmitz, soil health and climate smart ag coordinator with Purdue Extension, Indiana has much of what the USDA calls ‘prime farmland.’

“It's not just being able to grow good crops, there's actually maps out there that will define areas that the USDA says are prime farmland,” he said. “And anytime panels go on those, there are conflicts.”

When panels are in place for the average 30-year contact length, soil health is affected.

“Anytime you're looking at bare soil underneath panels, you are degrading the soil to the highest degree possible, creating potential erosion, losing organic matter, and at the end of the life of the solar panels returning a really degraded, awful kind of situation to the landowner,” he said.

Developers are often encouraged to plant cover crops underneath the panels to preserve soil health during the duration of the installation, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

In fact, Petty said that in one of his fields, the developers didn’t attempt to plant cover crops until late spring last year. The seeds eventually washed out.

As an alternative, wind turbines are more favorably viewed by landowners than solar panels due to their relatively small footprint, but they are not without their own problems.

“There's less of a negative outlook from the farming community, Schmitz said. “What you do get into on wind turbines are different sets of risk factors, whether that be shadow flicker to the neighbors, or the ability for wind turbines to create a little bit of disturbance and in weather forecasting and immediate near-term severe weather forecasting.”

They also have fewer ideal locations and are more expensive than solar panels. Throughout the state, wind turbine development has slowed considerably when compared to solar development.

In Schmitz’s opinion, farmers and developers need to consider how the placement of panels in fields affects the growth of ethanol and food.

“The question is a tradeoff of whether we would prefer to create the energy that goes to electrify our grid, or the energy that goes to feed ourselves and provide the fuels that we currently use to get around,” he said.

So with all these drawbacks to placing solar panels in farmable cropland, why must developers go after fields?

Kevin Parzyck, senior vice president for special projects with Doral Renewables, the largest solar developer in the state with over $3 billion worth of projects, said they look at three things when targeting the right land.

First is the level of sun the land receives, second is its proximity to existing power lines to move the energy to the grid, and third is local zoning laws and community reaction.

“That third one, that is always the big challenge that plays out over time, because it's the thing that really is going to affect a community,” he said. “In both positive and negative ways, potentially.”

During that final part of their process, Parzyck said they often need to sign up many landowners to hedge their bets and ensure the project can still take place if some landowners disagree.

“It's rare that one landowner will say, ‘No’, then it just kills the project in total, a lot of times you can work around it,” he said.

He also said that the number of people who sign up to host solar panels often differs from the number that get installed, due to environmental factors and placement to catch the sun.

“When it's all said and done, you're gonna stay away from wetlands, you're gonna stay away from forests, you don't want to cut down trees, you have setbacks, you have landowners who don't want to blah, blah, blah, you end up only covering 20% the land (with panels).”

Doral said their projects inject money into areas with few economic drivers outside of agriculture.

“We have technicians who will be part of the project long-term come from local labor pools, they live in the area,” he said. “We continue to pump money into the area with people who have to come in and cut grass or fix panels or fix fences, plow roads, etc. So, there is money coming in.”

It’s tricky, because at the end of the day, switching to green energy is favored by many farmers like Petty.

“I'm all for, you know, trying new ways of bringing in power because Lord knows we're gonna run out at some point,” he said. “But it feels a little bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Enter the Indiana chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Sean Mobley, senior policy associate for climate and clean energy said their efforts are focused on trying to help developers use land responsibly.

“The Nature Conservancy would be the first to say that not all clean energy projects are good clean energy projects, and that usually comes down to where they're sited,” he said.

The Conservancy’s Mine the Sun initiative attempts to get developers to place panels on abandoned mines and brownfields throughout the state. Brownfields are pieces of abandoned industrial land not being used otherwise due to pollution.

“We're identifying acres across the state where you don't have to move those acres out of traditional row crop agriculture, which is a priority for a state like Indiana where a major part of our economy is agriculture,” he said.

They’re also encouraging developers to investigate agrivoltaics, a method which would allow farmers to continue to farm underneath solar panels, as well as colocation.

“A quarter of that acre is the footprint of a wind turbine, why not surround the rest of it with solar electricity,” he said. “So trying to find the areas of the state where it makes sense to do colocation.”

And according to Mobley, when developers incorporate these community and conservation impacts into their decision-making processes, everyone comes out on top.

“When you do that, studies show that projects are done on time, there are less delays, which saves money, it just increases the return on investment,” he said.

Through efforts like this, farmers like Petty could have more farmland to work, and more clean energy could be installed to help to keep our environment safe.