Solar farms are coming to rural Washtenaw County. There are pros and cons, researchers say – MLive.com

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WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – Solar farms covering hundreds or even thousands of acres are in the pipeline across Michigan, and rural Washtenaw County is no exception.

But those renewable energy projects have run into opposition from residents concerned over panels blanketing large swaths of land that would otherwise be used for agriculture. So is utility-scale solar a threat or an opportunity for farming?

The answer, a pair of University of Michigan researchers say, depends on what you take farmland preservation to mean, as well as the circumstances of individual solar arrays.

“Here’s the truth — every energy source has pros and cons at the local level, and so if anybody is only talking about the pros or only talking about the cons they have an agenda,” said Sarah Mills, a UM researcher who studies renewable energy and land use in rural areas.

Mills spoke alongside UM Clean Energy Land Use Specialist Madeleine Krol on Tuesday, March 18, in Freedom Township, addressing a group of residents of the rural community 15 miles outside Ann Arbor assembled for an informational series on solar farms organized by the Washtenaw County Conservation District.

Questions from residents about large-scale solar projects at other events prompted the series, ongoing in rural township halls across the county in February and March, said Summer Roberts, a community forester with the conservation district. The district partnered with the Center for EmPowering Communities at UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute, where Mills serves as director, to put on the events.

The series aims to inform landowners who may be or already have been approached by solar developers about leasing or purchasing their land for large-scale installations.

The Freedom Township Hall at 11508 E. Pleasant Lake Rd. near Manchester on Tuesday, March 18, 2024, the night of an informational event on large-scale solar installations hosted by the Washtenaw County Conservation District.Lucas Smolcic Larson | MLive.com

Solar is coming across Michigan

Michigan is at the early stages of large-scale solar development, but projects are in the pipeline across the Lower and Upper peninsulas, Mills and Krol said.

The boom is coming in part because the price of solar has dropped dramatically in the past 15 years, making installations viable across the country, Krol said.

Utilities have been calling for more solar for years, and Michigan legislation passed in 2023 set targets to quickly up the share renewables occupy in the state’s energy portfolio in the coming decades, Krol said. Now, some 90 projects are in the pipeline, accounting for roughly 15,000 megawatts, according to a map of solar farms under consideration Krol presented.

Read more: Legal agreement with township allows 159-acre solar farm in rural Washtenaw County to go ahead

The average size of those projects is 160 megawatts, occupying between 800 and 1,600 acres of land, and some of the biggest would cover up to 5,000 acres.

It’s no guarantee they all come to fruition though, as it’s a multi-year process for developers to assess the costs of hooking up to the grid, Krol said. That could prove too expensive, and issues with land acquisition could also stop projects, she said.

Residents oppose solar farm project

In this file photo, residents along M-21 display their displeasure by posting signs in their yards opposing a potential solar farm project on Tuesday, March 31, 2021 near Lennon. (Jake May | MLive.com)Jake May

Do solar arrays help or hurt farmland preservation?

The answer to the question on many rural residents minds has a lot to do with what they hope to preserve when conserving farmland, Mills said.

One one hand, solar farms can occupy land for more than 30 years, preventing residential development and presenting no demand for utility services while contributing industrial property taxes to communities. The state has also launched an award to local governments involved in hosting installations, which could provide more than $1 million in the case of one existing larger project, Mills said.

A typical solar lease can also provide landowners, including farmers, some $1,100 to $1,200 per acre per year, and developers depend on leasing or buying property to make their installations a reality, Mills said.

“Nobody’s going to force somebody to put solar on their property,” she said.

Mills is currently studying what property owners do with that revenue. In the case of wind energy, farmers often invest lease payments back into their farms, she said. With solar, her research has uncovered many different kinds of stories. Some farmers lease out the least productive parts of their land and continue to raise crops on the rest. Others might take the solar payments and choose to retire, she said.

Could the land under solar arrays still be used to produce food? The practice, known as “agrovoltaics,” is probably not likely on a large scale in the near future in the U.S., Mills said, but research is ongoing on that prospect, including in Michigan. That includes allowing sheep to graze under arrays. (Not goats, Mills said, “they nibble at the wires and jump on the panels.)

The impact of the projects on land used for growing food and the livelihoods of farmers is still very much an open question, she said. “These are the ones where the jury is still out.”

From another perspective, the projects do clearly have a visual impact, something that local communities can help address through local rules requiring screening or setbacks, according to Mills. Solar developers sometimes offer payments to neighbors surrounded by panels, and Mills is studying how prevalent that practice is, she said.

By electrical code, the installations have to be fenced off, and Michigan state game officials are still trying to understand impacts on deer populations, she said. But after the arrays are installed, smaller animals often return to the land, and some research indicates the projects can have benefits on the ecosystem and water quality if local plant species are planted underneath the panels, Mills said.

The panels themselves are unlikely to contaminate the land, at least not more than any other alternative use, she said, refencing questions over toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” that have arisen. “There is more of a concern over leaching or PFAS contamination from lawn furniture than there is from solar panels,” she said.

“The local benefits are largely economic,” Mills said. The downsides often have to do with the visual impacts of the projects and questions over whether they are a wise use of farmland, she said.

Residents oppose solar farm project

Solar farms sit in fields Friday, April 2, 2021 along Michigan 13 in Flushing. (Cody Scanlan | MLive.com)

Landowners have a big role to play

Solar might be top of mind for township officials across Washtenaw County and the state thanks to legislation passed in 2023 that could strip local control over the largest projects from communities.

The law gives solar developers with projects over 50 megawatts, usually some 500 acres, the option to go to the state for permitting, rather than through local zoning, Mills said. The rules, going into effect in late 2024, are still being defined, and also may face a challenge from a ballot initiative called Citizens for Local Choice, hoping to reverse them, Mills said.

Still, landowners themselves have influence over how solar farms are developed. “People who own property have a big role to play in siting for renewables, siting for solar,” Mills said.

Land leases offer the opportunity to negotiate over when construction can start, limiting it to certain seasons, she said. Landowners can also include provisions over hunting access, the right of first refusal to maintain the grounds or use them for grazing and the decommissioning and restoration of the property years down the road, according to Mills, who pointed landowners to an Ohio State University Extension guide to the process.

Property owners also have the discretion over which acres to lease, and can think about appropriate proximity to neighbors, how property lines are screened and what kinds of plantings cover the area, she said.

Large solar developments usually come with bond requirements to ensure they decommissioned after a certain period of time. What happens with the land after that time may depend on what local governments require when they are installed, with items like stormwater detention ponds or screening berms less likely to be removed, Mills said.

Still, she said, “solar is certainly more reversible than a golf course, and definitely more reversible than residential development.”

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