September 19, 2023

Solar farms provide opportunities and questions about land use for pa agriculture.

A solar panel is installed in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rachel Wagoner)

In Pennsylvania, about 450 large-scale solar projects are currently under consideration. The majority of these proposed projects, if built, would go on open land. This raises opportunities for the farmers who own this land, but also questions about how solar development might affect the state’s agriculture.

“Although sometimes in conflict, there is often a land use compatibility between solar power generation and production agriculture,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding said during a briefing. Pennsylvania Farm Show panel on January 13. “As with other types of development, solar power development often seems targeted by industry on the flattest areas which often have the best soils for growing food. Competing land uses are not news in the agricultural landscape.

The Pennsylvania State Grange hosted a panel with representatives from the state legislature, industry, and energy research to discuss solar energy and agricultural development at the Agricultural Expo on 13 January.


Industry officials estimate that about 10 to 20 percent of projects under consideration will actually be built, said Tom Murphy of Pennsylvania State University. Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, during the panel. That could equate to about 80,000 acres of solar panels and $13 billion invested in construction projects in the state.

Panelists mentioned the links between large-scale solar development and the earlier shale gas boom in Pennsylvania. In either case, landowners should carefully consider the details of the leases and how accepting a lease will affect their land. Murphy recommended property owners speak with an attorney who has a good understanding of solar leasing, in particular.


Leases for solar farms, however, tend to be more extensive than gas industry leases, both in number of pages in the document itself – often 40 pages – and in years, spanning often over a quarter of a century.

“There’s a lot of legalese in there, and people need to be sure they understand what they’re signing, because these leases… in my opinion, if the lease is exercised, it would be a type of multi-generational contract. that you are going to engage in as a landowner,” Murphy said.

There are different things solar developers look for when considering land for a project, he said. One is the existing infrastructure in the area, such as electrical substations. Relatively flat open land is another. Additionally, since these projects often span hundreds of acres, or even thousands, developers are often looking for connected properties that are all interested in leasing.

“A lot of utility-sized solar farms, we look at farmland because it offers previously disturbed areas, and it’s flat, and often we have landowners who are looking for that diverse source of income,” said Alyssa Edwards, vice president. president of environmental affairs and government relations at Lightsource BP, which has several solar projects in Pennsylvania.


Pennsylvania Sen. Gene Yaw of R-Loyalsock Township said it’s important to consider other consequences these projects could have.

“I’m not against solar power at all,” he said. “But I’ve been in the Harrisburg Legislature long enough to know that what we do in one place…there’s a reaction somewhere else.”

Pennsylvania has over 600,000 acres of preserved farmland. It also has a clean and green tax assessment program, intended to help protect the state’s agricultural and forest lands. It is important to consider how solar development would affect these programs and whether farmland in these programs is eligible for solar leasing.

“Philosophy, what are we going to do with this? yaw said. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this, but there are definitely ramifications whichever direction we go.”

Yaw also raised concerns about what happens to solar panels at the end of a 20 or 25 year lease and who is responsible for them. So far, there is no established and widespread system for recycling solar panels.

Some leases require companies to eventually remove all equipment and return the land to its original condition. A bill pending in the state legislature would require bonding for solar panels, just like for coal mines, to help ensure developers restore the land at the end of a project.


Not all solar projects on farmland completely decommission the land for agriculture. Solar developers need to maintain the landscapes around their solar panels, and some are willing to recruit livestock to do so. Some farmers are considering solar grazing as a way to use land under solar panels for farming and earn money.

“We would pay for a person to … mow the land that the solar installation is on, and in many cases now we have sheep doing that work, so we are basically paying the farmer to graze his sheep in solar installations,” Edwards said.

Last year, Lexie Hain, farmer and executive director of the American Solar Grazing Association, grazed 550 acres with 1,400 ewes at facilities in New York and Pennsylvania.

“I’ve seen a significant increase in…the amount of land I can access, the amount of production I can have, the lambs I can sell and other sheep products, and so it’s been great for me personally. “, Hain mentioned.

Communication is key, she says. It is important to ensure that solar developers and farmers are on the same page regarding best practices and what farmers will and will not do in their facilities.

“They spend a lot of time planning, and they invest millions of dollars, and we’re going to bring cattle into their expensive facilities…we want them to trust us, and we want them to pay us,” said Hain said.


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