Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of Maryland Matters’ Climate Calling Project. To read previous stories, click here. To learn more about the project, click here.
As state and local governments struggle to meet clean energy mandates, they recognize that farmland is often an ideal location for large renewable energy projects.
But installing large solar panels and other renewable energy installations on farms is not always easy, and projects can face environmental, political, regulatory, institutional and aesthetic opposition – or resistance from homeowners. land themselves.
“Land use is a very dynamic issue and it is one of the main obstacles facing renewable energy,” said Nichole Chiappa, acting executive director of the Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association, a business group in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC
Yet in Howard County, where government leaders put in place an ambitious solar power plan earlier this summer, renewable energy officials, advocates and industry leaders say they are fixing the heist. -head – with buy-in from the farmers themselves – and believe their plan can become a model for local governments across the state and in the Mid-Atlantic.
“This is what I’ve been working on since we arrived – to be leaders in the fight against climate change,” County Director Calvin Ball (D) said in a recent interview. “It helps ensure we have clean solar power here – and we’re leading by example. It really paves the way for the state.
Howard County’s solar plan envisions the government generating more than half of its energy needs from the sun within about two years. To do so, over the next few months, the county government will place 11 solar panels in parking lots, on the roofs of office buildings, fire stations and county prisons, in a landfill – and, in a first time, in three private farms. According to Ball administration estimates, the solar project is equivalent to taking more than 6,700 cars off the road each year.
The county government is working with CI Renewables, a New Jersey-based contractor, to erect the solar installations – and the first could be on farmland this fall. The company will build, operate and maintain the solar panels and associated production operations at no cost to the county, and will lease agricultural land that is used in the project. In return, CI, which outbid four companies to win the Howard contract, will bill the county for the electricity produced by the solar panels – a deal similar to what government agencies are making with other energy providers.
The county government contract with CI Renewables lasts 25 years with a five-year option; these 30 years correspond to the lifespan of a typical solar energy installation.
At a time when many farmers are under pressure to sell their land to real estate developers, supporters of this plan see a double environmental benefit: greater use of solar energy and a way to keep farmland on track. of rapid disappearance.
Teresa Stonesifer’s family has run Triple Creek Farm, a cattle and wheat farm in West Friendship for over 85 years. Like so many farms in central Maryland, Triple Creek has been hit in recent years by extreme heat, historic flooding, tornadoes, insect infestations, and limitations imposed by local conservation laws and proximity to the farm. , as the name suggests, three bodies of water.
But as county officials made public their solar ambitions, which began with legislation sponsored by Ball five years ago, while he was still on county council – and sought out farmers willing to participate in the program – Stonesifer , who runs the farm with her. sister and other parents began to see the possibilities.
“We’re limited by what we can do with the crops and the livestock to get out of the red,” she said. “I thought to myself, maybe this is something we can take care of.”
Joshua Smith, senior vice president of CI Renewables, which manages the Howard County project, put it this way: “Farmers’ jobs are getting harder because of climate change. It’s predictable income for them.
The solar panels will be spread over 27 1/2 acres of Stonesifer’s farm, or about a quarter of its farmland. But it will not sacrifice any farm for solar panels. CI Renewables uses so-called “agrovoltaic” solar panels that sit on platforms six feet above the ground.
This allows livestock to continue to feed and water under the panels. About half of the soil under the panels will be hay, the other half will be grass, although this is primarily for animal consumption – the commercial harvest will be elsewhere on the farm.
There will be plenty of shade and enough space to create drinkers under the rows. And the technology is pollinator friendly, which means bees, which are increasingly under threat, will be able to thrive – another potential source of activity and income for the farm.
“It’s like a commodity,” Stonesifer said. “We still breed cattle, we still grow crops. Now we are going to cultivate the sun.
“The advantage of diversifying their farms”
Maryland’s current clean energy goals require the state to power its grid with 50% renewable energy by 2030. The state must achieve 14.5% solar energy use by 2028.
To help achieve this goal, according to a report prepared a year ago by the Governor’s Renewable Energy Development and Implementation Task Force, between 7,766 acres and 33,033 acres of farmland in Maryland will be needed. to accommodate solar installations. This represents between 0.4% and 1.7% of all farmland in the state – and between 0.7% and 2.9% of what the task force describes as “prime” agricultural land in the state. the state.
“For large-scale solar developers, Maryland’s prime farmland is a practical option for siting power plants and generating projects,” the report said.
But the concept of installing large-scale solar panels on farmland remains a controversial proposition.
Earlier this year, after a year of debate, a divided Montgomery County council approved a zoning amendment that allowed only limited expansion of solar installations in the county’s vast agricultural reserve.
This decision resulted in a reprimand from the Del State. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House environment and transportation committee, who said that “talking is cheap” in a Washington post remark.
“This isn’t the ‘radical change’ the county called in 2017, when it declared a climate emergency,” Barve wrote. “As a legislative leader who has studied and worked on environmental issues for many years, I can tell you that Maryland does not have time to wait, because the use of fossil fuels is the main driver of change. climate. Also, let me be clear once and for all: Ground-based solar power is the most cost-effective clean energy alternative here. “
Likewise, Baltimore County leaders have faced opposition to proposed solar projects on farmland – although County Director John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) announced earlier this year that the county would seek to use 100% carbon-free energy sources by 2026.
As a result, Joshua Feldmark, director of community sustainability for Howard County, says he’s heard from envious counterparts in surrounding jurisdictions who are impressed that Howard is moving forward with his solar expansion – and using farmland to achieve this.
Feldmark said residents are increasingly comfortable seeing large solar panels in parking lots or commercial developments, but there is still a stigma associated with locating them on farmland.
“It’s actually just an aesthetic,” he said. “It’s when the neighbors say, ‘I want to look at a picture of Norman Rockwell. “”
Ball said the cooperation and support of farmers in Howard County has been key in building support for solar panels on farmland.
Partnering with farmers, he acknowledged, can sometimes lead to “difficult conversations”. But increasingly, “Howard County farmers are recognizing the benefits of diversifying their operations.”
“I think it takes courage to do big things,” Ball added.
Chiappa, of the Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association, thanked Howard County for its commitment to “winning the hearts and minds” of residents regarding the location of solar installations. And she predicted that they will find out that “solar is a good neighbor.”
And what will Stonesifer’s cows, sheep and goats think of the massive solar panels when they are installed on the farm later this year? She paused for a minute to think, then let out a small laugh.
“It will grab their attention for a little while,” she said. “But like everything, I think they’ll get used to it.”