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American Farmland Trust Releases Smart Solar Recommendations to Help State and Local Policymakers Advance Solar and Strengthen Farm Viability

(Washington, D.C. – December 13, 2023) Today, American Farmland Trust (AFT), one of the leading non-profits working to address rural community concerns while advancing renewable energy, released policy recommendations for state and local governments to keep land in farming and strengthen farm viability as the U.S. builds out solar. This release comes on the heels of COP28 as the U.S. strives to maintain momentum in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Addressing community concerns about the impact of solar on food security and rural economies will be essential to getting renewable projects built, and therefore achieving climate targets, as electricity generation accounts for a quarter of U.S. emissions.

“The question is not if solar will be developed, but how. Local—and sometimes state—governments are responsible for permitting solar projects in the U.S. It is their policies that shape what is proposed and ultimately developed,” said Samantha Levy, Conservation and Climate Policy Manager for AFT. “AFT released these recommendations to guide the proactive state and local policymaking we need to achieve a solar buildout that aggressively reduces GHG emissions to slow climate change while strengthening farm communities and food security in the process.”

In 2020, the Department of Energy released the Solar Energy Futures study which projected that the U.S. will need over 10 million acres of solar to achieve the goal of decarbonizing the electric grid by 2050, 90% of which is expected to take place in rural areas. Further modeling by AFT’s Farms Under Threat 2040 initiative estimated that, without policy changes, 83% of expected future solar development will take place on farmland – with nearly half of that on our country’s most productive, versatile, and resilient farmland.

“Competitive markets and policy at all levels of government are driving rapid advancements in the deployment of clean energy and solar will be critical part of this transition,” said Ethan Winter, National Smart Solar Director for AFT. “As solar energy infrastructure expands, we need to ensure that we are also benefiting rural communities, engaging farmers, and protecting our best land for growing food and other crops. Getting this right is essential to achieving climate, clean energy, and farmland protection goals. Smart Solar provides a solution.”

Though solar can be an important economic opportunity for farmland owners in the form of long-term solar leases, it can also increase competition for land for farmer-renters and aspiring farmland owners. As projects trend larger—hundreds or even thousands of acres in size—they are being slowed or halted by community concerns about how large-scale conversion of farmland will impact host communities. Agrivoltaic arrays, which integrate agricultural production with solar energy generation on the same land, are a promising alternative but will require additional research and incentives to gain wider use.

AFT developed four Smart Solar principles, which form the foundation of its state and local policy recommendations encouraging policymakers to effectively address these concerns and maximize benefits to farm communities while advancing solar by:

  1. Empowering communities to define and steer solar development to preferred sites, like the built environment and contaminated and marginal land, in order to prevent the conversion of land well-suited for farming out of production,
  1. Requiring that developers follow minimum standards that will safeguard soil health and productivity during construction, operation, and decommissioning, and preserve future water access and rights when siting solar on farmland,
  1. Expanding development of agrivoltaic projects (the pairing of solar energy generation with agricultural production) through research, demonstrations, incentives, and support, and
  1. Advancing equity and farm viability by promoting distributed solar and protecting low-income ratepayers from potential energy cost increases.

AFT and the National Agricultural Land Network (NALN) will host a webinar on Wednesday, February 28th from 1:00-2:00 pm EST to educate state and local government officials, lawmakers, and advocates on the Smart Solar principles and policy recommendations to achieve these goals. Click here to register.

Levy added, “Our recommendations include supporting research, best practices, examples, and other resources that will help advance this work. AFT is at the ready to assist communities as they make these critical decisions. We hope that these recommendations will help not just elected officials and policymakers, but also solar developers, clean energy buyers, advocates, and other stakeholders by identifying what they can do to address community concerns and keep land in farming while we work to achieve urgently needed GHG emissions reductions.”

In addition to recommendations for local and state policymakers, AFT developed recommendations for Congress in the next Farm Bill to invest in research and provide trusted, technical information from USDA to support communities in meeting the Smart Solar goals. Members of Congress have introduced two Farm Bill marker bills that advance this agenda, the Protecting Future Farmland Act, introduced by Senators Baldwin (D-WI) and Grassley (R-IA), and the Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act, introduced by Senators Heinrich (D-NM) and Braun (R-IN). USDA also recently announced listening sessions for January 2024 to hear from agricultural producers, the public, energy stakeholders, and permitting authorities on these issues. Learn more and register for these listening sessions here.

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