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Farmland Solar Policy Design Toolkit

Other Considerations

Topics

Other Lands and Renewable Technologies

This toolkit views solar development policy through the lens of agricultural use protection and farmer access to clean energy. The policy considerations applicable to farmland solar siting are more widely applicable to renewable energy development on any valuable lands, and lawmakers should evaluate the options for smart farmland solar policy identified here for application to other lands and renewable energy technologies. At the same time, the policy options identified here may not be appropriate for all farmland, particularly land enrolled in strict conservation programs. This toolkit does not address every single state law promoting or regulating renewable energy development.

Policymakers should use this toolkit as a jumping off point for exploring solar development laws in these other contexts.

Open Space, Forestland, and other Valuable Natural Resources

Forestland and non-agricultural open space land are frequently targeted as sites for solar development. Lawmakers should address the impact of solar development not only on farmland, but on forestland and other valuable natural resources. The options for policy design identified in this Toolkit can be modified for application to other land types.

Other Renewable Energy Technologies

Solar energy is not the only renewable energy technology that developers or landowners seek to site on agricultural land. Wind, micro-hydro, and biogas generation facilities are also likely to be sited on farms. Lawmakers should evaluate all state renewable energy siting policies for adverse impacts on agricultural land and for barriers to renewable energy development that improve farm viability. The options for policy design identified in this Toolkit can be modified for application to other renewable energy technologies.

Other Renewable Energy Incentives

Incentives for solar development, including special financing, grant and loan programs, and property tax exemptions may be available for new solar arrays in certain states. Federal incentives for renewable energy development are also available. These programs, which are not discussed in any detail in this report, are likely to accelerate in-state solar development, which increases pressure on agricultural lands.

Similarly, policymakers should be aware of incentives and programs that may accelerate the development of other renewable energy technologies on agricultural land including wind, micro-hydro, and biogas.

Protected and Conserved Farmland

Rules for solar development on farmland subject to agricultural or other conservation easements or enrolled in state, federal, or land trust conservation programs vary widely. Solar arrays on conserved or protected land may be prohibited or subject to program-specific or land trust-specific restrictions.

Usually, the right to develop protected or conserved farmland has been separated from the underlying estate and is held by a third-party, usually a state agency or land trust.

Because conservation restrictions are usually enforceable deed restrictions meant to apply to the property in perpetuity, rules about allowing solar development on such lands are likely to be very strict.

Land Trust-Owned Land

Land trusts that either own land outright or hold the development rights to land may be able to establish rules for solar development on lands they administer. The smart farmland solar policy options identified in the Current Use Taxation section of this report may be useful for land trusts evaluating when solar development might be allowed.

For example, the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association identified land trust-owned land that may be compatible with renewable energy development, including marginal land with poor soil and poor wildlife habitat, rooftops of existing and future structures, and parking lots. They promote a model in which solar arrays could be allowed under a conservation easement depending on the level of protection of the underlying land. Solar infrastructure would be prohibited in areas designated for the protection of biodiversity and natural habitat and are allowed at the approval of the easement holder in areas designated as needing minimal protection.

New and Existing Conservation Easements

Existing conservation easements agreements may leave no room for solar development, as the terms may restrict any new development on the protected land. It is much easier for land trusts and other easement holders to consider building opportunities for smart renewable energy development projects into new conservation easement agreements.

For example, farm easements funded under the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s ACEP/ALE program allow renewable energy production as a permitted use when it serves the electric needs of the protected property:

“On-Farm Energy Production: Renewable energy production is allowed for the purpose of generating energy for the agricultural and residential needs of the Protected Property. Renewable energy sources on the Protected Property must be built and maintained in accordance with any local zoning ordinance and applicable State and Federal laws. Renewable energy sources must be approved by Grantees’, in their sole discretion, and at a minimum shall be built and maintained within impervious surface limits, with minimal impact on the conservation values of the Protected Property and consistent with the Purposes of this Grant as determined by Grantees’.”

Additional References
  1. Andrew M. Loza, Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, Solar Energy Development and Land Conservation (2019).
  2. U.S.D.A., N.R.C.S., Minimum Deed Terms for the Protection of Agricultural Use, April 29, 2016 (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/null/?cid=stelprdb1248212).

Additional Resources

The following organizations and websites are useful to researchers seeking to understand more about farmland solar siting policy:

Solar and Renewable Energy Policy Resources

Clean Energy States Alliance

https://cesa.org/

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/energy-systems-tools.html

Solar Energy Industries Association

https://www.seia.org/states-map

Energy Information Administration

https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/

Solar Power Rocks

https://www.solarpowerrocks.com

Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy

http://programs.dsireusa.org/system/program

Department of Energy

https://www.energy.gov/eere/femp/renewable-energy-maps-and-tools

Acadia Center

https://acadiacenter.org/knowledge-center/

Conservation Law Foundation

https://www.clf.org/making-an-impact/solar-power/

Vote Solar

https://votesolar.org/usa/

Farmland and Agricultural Policy Resources

USDA Economic Research Service

https://www.ers.usda.gov/

2017 Census of Agriculture

https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/AgCensus/2017/

Farmland Information Center

https://farmlandinfo.org/

American Farmland Trust

https://farmland.org/project/smart-solar-siting-partnership-project-for-new-england/