On-farm opportunities and challenges for solar development

Today in the lower 48 states, nearly two-thirds of land is used for agricultural purposes. But as the U.S. population continues to increase, so will its energy requirements. That means competition for land between these two forces will inevitably grow. Case in point, by 2040, new energy development will require some 77,000 square miles more than it does now, a 27% jump.

Field of solar panels on the ground.

On-farm solar development is increasingly becoming a financially viable and environmentally friendly alternative on American farmland.

Solar panels present almost no risk of soil or water contamination when installed and maintained properly. Photovoltaic maintenance only requires enough water to occasionally wash dust and grime from panel surfaces, negligible use compared to an oil or gas well.

In addition, solar panels produce no added toxic waste, and aside from soil disturbance during installation or removal, have little long-term impact on the productivity of the land on which they are sited. While larger solar installations can negatively affect soil and vegetation, there are a number of measures—careful siting, prudent landscaping, revegetation—that can mitigate such concerns.

Finally, solar power is flexible, reliable, and scalable, especially on agricultural land. Whereas oil and gas wells require a minimum of five to 10 acres of land, solar can be deployed to whatever scale a farm owner desires or might accommodate. This means potential development on land already unused or unirrigated by farmers, minimizing disruptions to existing farm production.

Realizing these co-benefits at scale, however, will require a long-term commitment and innovative solutions from local, state, and federal policymakers.

This story is by Anuj Krishnamurthy and Oscar Serpell. Read more at Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.