A view of solar panels along a road

The largest solar farm proposal in the Midwest recently received approval from Wisconsin state regulators. Most of the 3,500-acre Badger Hollow Solar Farm project, which is being developed by Illinois-based Invenergy, is located on active farmland and will include up to 1.2 million solar panels on 2,200 acres of the project area. Some in the community saw the project as a staggering land use change in their community and contrary to the county’s farmland preservation plan. Significant local opposition to the project decried the use of prime agricultural land for solar production.

This case is emblematic of the dilemmas faced by the solar industry, utilities, and those working at the local, state, and federal levels to decarbonize the power sector and increase the use of local renewable energy. The Great Plains Institute is working to address these issues in ways that support solar development and agricultural protection goals.

Farmland preservation a priority in the project’s community

Iowa County, Wisconsin, where the project will be located, adopted farmland preservation standards in 2016. The standards identified agricultural soils and prime farmland as protected natural resources and agricultural practices as a priority economic base activity for much of the county. The county has largely reserved prime soils for agricultural use and some residents felt that removing 3,500 acres from agricultural production contradicted the land use and economic priorities set by the community.

Public comment

Yet 3,500 acres is only 0.7 percent of the county’s area and an even smaller fraction of the region’s productive cropland and pasture. Moreover, the established farmers who leased the land for the project viewed the solar opportunity as an alternative crop that diversified the farms’ revenues and ensured ongoing viable agricultural operation on the remaining farmland. Unlike other forms of development, the solar farm can be successfully co-located with agricultural uses, and the grounds under the solar arrays would be planted in perennial grasses and forbs, which would result in several benefits:

  • dramatically increase the amount of pollinator habitat in the county
  • reduce erosion and lower sediment in surface waters
  • build soil quality over the lifetime of the solar installation


Developing best practices for solar development and agricultural communities

The land development dilemma in Iowa County is not unique and is being played out across the country. GPI is working at the local, state, and regional level to develop best practices for siting and designing utility- and community-scale solar development that is low impact and highly beneficial. A primary component of this work is determining how to integrate solar farm and solar garden development in historically agricultural communities so as to create synergies and minimize risks.

Some key questions that guide our work:

  • How can solar development and agricultural practices co-exist?
  • Is solar development a greater or lesser risk than housing or other forms of development?
  • Do solar farms and gardens pose a threat to agricultural viability, or do they diversify agricultural operations and revenues?
  • How can solar development in agricultural communities provide synergies and benefits to local economies and their environment?

National implications

Over the next decade, the US Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that as much as 350 GW of utility-scale solar capacity could be installed across the nation, covering a land area of between 1.5 and 2.0 million acres.[1] Most of this development would occur in our nation’s rural areas, on privately-owned land currently in crops or pasture.

Who gets to decide whether solar farms are zoned and sited as farms or as industrial solar energy factories? In many places across the country, these decisions that shape how land is developed for a solar project are in the hands of local officials including county boards, local planning commissions, and township officials.

Nationally, two million acres sounds like an enormous amount of land. It is larger than two states (Rhode Island and Delaware) and almost as big as Yellowstone National Park. However, two million acres is not an enormous amount of land in the national context if spread out across the country and represents only 0.0001 percent of the lower 48 states. Two million acres is 0.2 percent of the nation’s total farmland and 0.6 percent of the nation’s cropland. Every year, measurements of the nation’s total cultivated land go up and down by approximately this amount, due to development and new cultivation of pasture, forest, or conservation lands. Our nation’s total agricultural production is unlikely to be affected by even this high estimate of solar development and even if it were sited only on currently cultivated land.[2]

Figure 1. Total U.S. cropland, millions of acres

Figure 1: Total US cropland, millions of acres

Source: National Resources Inventory, NRCS, USDA, 2015

However, development impacts and land use conflicts are generally not measured or regulated at the national scale, but rather at the local scale.[3] Two million acres is 1.7 percent of the total amount of developed land in the nation (2015).[4] On an annual basis, two million acres of development over ten years is more than double the recent (2012-2015) annualized cropland-to-development conversion rate.[5] Moreover, farmland preservation is frequently defined as natural resource protection, where the protection question has little to do with the total land in production. Instead, the protection focuses on the inherent value of each farmable parcel, in a similar way that individual lakes or parks or woodlots are valued independently of the impact on the total number of lakes or parks.

The land use implications of solar farm development frequently depend on one’s existing perspective about local economic priorities, risks to rural character, and the natural resource priorities at the community level.

The bundle of protection goals

Many states and communities have enacted agricultural protection goals or standards, and a number of organizations advocate for farmland or agricultural protection from development. Yet farmland protection is not one thing. There is a bundle of distinct and sometimes conflicting protection goals that make up farmland protection standards and programs, sometimes leading to very different outcomes. For example, the State of Michigan just determined that solar development can be integrated with its farmland protection incentive program,[6] while the State of Oregon recently tightened its farmland protection rules to specifically restrict solar development in protected areas.[7]

Understanding the specific goals that farmland or agriculture protection programs target is the first step in understanding how solar development can be done to limit conflicts with the goals, or even to be used as a tool to enhance the goals. The bundle of protection goals found in existing laws, programs, and regulations across the nation includes at least some of the following:

  • protection of prime agricultural soils
  • protection of prime farmland
  • limiting fragmentation of farmland
  • restricting nuisance complaints about agricultural practices
  • restricting secondary development around non-agricultural land uses
  • promoting economic stability for agricultural operations
  • limiting changes to rural character

Utility- and community-scale solar development affects each of these protection goals differently.

Table 1. Examples of how solar development impacts agriculture protection goals

Benefits Agriculture Protection Goals Conflicts with Protection Goals
Solar development can be done so as to protect and even enhance prime soils, by avoiding grading and soil mining, planting and maintaining perennial ground cover over the site, mitigating temporary loss of use with permanent ag easements. Solar development causes the “loss” of prime farmland by taking it out of agricultural production for the life of the solar development, which is likely to be at least 25 years unless co-located with a compatible economic ag use.
Solar development diversifies revenue sources for agricultural operations and makes them more economically stable. Solar development competes with traditional agriculture for land in some locations, potentially driving up prices or cost of leases.
Solar development does not create, and can even discourage, secondary development that other development frequently creates, the genesis of urban sprawl in rural areas. Solar development can significantly change the visual landscape for adjacent properties and road ROW, from crop or pasture to solar farms or buffer screening.

Identifying opportunities to meet solar development & agricultural protection goals

Most of the debate about solar development and agriculture unfortunately characterizes the question as a choice: “Do we want solar or do we want agriculture?” The appropriate question is quite different: “How can solar development help our community or state meet our agricultural protection goals?” Rather than asking yes or no questions about solar and agriculture, we need to be asking “how?”

Table 1 reflects GPI’s ongoing assessment of opportunities to shape or locate solar development that enhances, rather than conflicts with, agricultural and farmland preservation goals. Low-impact development techniques can be adapted to protect farm soils, farmland, and agricultural practices if local and state decision makers are willing to consider the possibility:

  • Native ground cover in and around the arrays provides pollinator habitat that enhances production for some crops, serves as a buffer to improve surface water quality, restores soils to pre-development conditions, and can sequester carbon to monetize an additional landowner benefit or create carbon negative electricity if wrapped into the solar output.
  • Incorporating conservation easements on both the site and surrounding lands can ensure that agriculture is the primary use well into the future.
  • Prioritizing marginal farmland for solar development in regulations and reduce siting review will create a siting compliance pathway that can take pressure off prime areas while making existing agricultural operations more financially viable.

By finding the win-win opportunities and setting clear and predictable standards for developers, we can meet both our solar development and agricultural protection goals, making both industries more viable, and strengthening our rural communities.

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[1] Cole, et al. SunShot 2030 for Photovoltaics (PV): Envisioning a Low-cost PV Future, 2017, NREL/TP-6A20-68105, assuming solar costs meet DOE SunShot targets and solar uses between 6 and 8 acres per MW.

[2] In 2018 58% of solar development was in utility-scale solar farms (Solar Market Insight Report, 2018, SEIA).  Utility-scale solar farms were located on a variety of land types, including pasture land, cultivated land, undeveloped urban lands, federal lands not in agriculture, and other land coverage.

[3] Land use control for solar farms and gardens varies state-by-state.  In some states, state agencies pre-empt local land use controls (Maryland), some take over land use and environmental review when the project is of a threshold size, 50 MW (Minnesota) or 100 MW (Wisconsin) or 150 MW (Virginia).  Other states, such as Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Iowa, leave some or all of the land use decisions to the local government, regardless of project size.

[4] 2015 National Resources Inventory; Summary Report, USDA, September 2018.

[5] Id. Assuming a worst case of siting all the solar farm development on land currently in cropland.

[6] The Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development changed the rules to allow solar development with appropriate design to be located in lands enrolled in the Farmland and Open Space Preservation program (PA 116) without penalty, although the tax incentives are suspended.

[7] The Oregon Dept. of Land Conservation and Development modified its existing farmland preservation rules to limit solar development on Class 1 and 2 soils and those classified as prime or unique by the NCRS, which affects millions of acres of land.

Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder / National Renewable Energy Laboratory


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