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As Solar Developments Continue, Land Leasers Stand to Lose the Most

As Solar Developments Continue, Land Leasers Stand to Lose the Most

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.”

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Photo Credit: istock-simplycreativephotography

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