For years farmers and solar companies have debated which land use is more sustainable, solar fields or farm fields. Using more land for renewable energy is a controversial topic. The amount of available farmland in the United States is shrinking rapidly, with 6,000 acres of arable land developed daily. In some regions of the United States, farmers worry that converting arable into solar or wind fields causes irreparable damage. Concerns over land value and crop production are the chief complaints, especially as the agricultural industry looks for new ways to produce food more efficiently.
However, new concepts regarding solar and wind fields have pushed back against this all or nothing thinking. Why take the farm out of production when it could work symbiotically with the energy field? Engineers and farmers are working together to find solutions that focus on collaboration, not competition. Creating a new type of farmland that raises crops or livestock while also producing energy may protect agricultural lands from development, while keeping them in food production.
Combing renewable energy production with food production also supports the integration of diverse crops, rather than monocultures. As a whole, it introduces a new way of multi-use land development, one that redefines productivity by expanding opportunity rather than limiting it.
Redefining Land Use
Using more land for renewable energy is all about redefining "productive use." Clean energy advocates and farmers have disagreed in the past on how to define productive land. New research introduces the practice of agrivoltaics as a land-use solution, harnessing solar energy while keeping fields in crop production. A multi-use solution like this allows farmers to benefit from the cost-savings of renewable energy while also maintaining land in agricultural use.
The majority of renewable energy installed on farms is wind or solar. Wind turbines pump water and generate electricity, resulting in cost-savings for the farmer. Wind installations can also occur on agricultural land without disrupting crop production or livestock grazing. In addition to grazing animals like sheep and cows, there is also research oninterplanting row crops like kale and tomatoes in solar fields.
There are several benefits of using productive farmland for renewable energy. A study by Oregon State University found that if even 1% of agricultural land was converted to include solar, it would offset the global energy demand completely. On a local level, utilizing renewable energy without harming the value of agricultural land may contribute to a more resilient rural economy.
Agriculture can be a risky business. Incentivizing multi-use land development for renewable energy is crucial. In Massachusetts, for example, there is a solar incentive for agricultural operations, allowing farmers to preserve land for agricultural use while also benefitting from the cost-savings of solar. If there are clear benefits for farmers, they are more likely to consider installing renewable energy on their land.
Solar energy creates a second income stream for farmers and allows them to use energy directly on the farm. Especially in rural areas where extending power lines may be difficult, solar provides farmers with an opportunity to reduce operational costs while also making a profit. The inclusion of solar on farmland may also protect farmers against a volatile industry. Depending on the crop, farmers can be susceptible to huge swings in profit. The second source of income may increase the security of farmers who confront risk in their crop production.
The U.S Department of Energy also provides resources for farmers interested in installing solar on their fields. In addition to potential cost-savings and a second income stream, there are also practical benefits for farmers. For example, a solar installation in a sheep pasture may help farmers to use agricultural equipment more efficiently, with grazing animals taking care of the mowing. To use more land for renewable energy, the agreement must benefit the farmer, not just the solar company.
The potential of multi-use land that harnesses renewable energy while producing crops could be vital in boosting rural economies. Instead of viewing energy companies and farm businesses in opposition, there are now possibilities for collaboration. A new rural economy must balance renewable energy with food production to create a more efficient system.
Advances in renewable energy technology are rapidly being made, especially in the realm of solar and wind. Solar fields installed five years ago look very different than fields installed today, and this theme will probably continue. As the world moves towards more renewable energy sources, energy companies must work with the agriculture industry in finding solutions. By working in collaboration, we may be able to use more land for renewable energy and create a more sustainable food system.