Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy legislative session over in the great state of Michigan, where policy makers are considering the idea that putting solar panels on farmland is a good thing. If the state does relax its restrictions, look for other US states to amp up the solar power rush.
If that doesn’t give natural gas stakeholders the willies, it should. A good hunk of US farmland comes under the umbrella of rural electric co-operatives.
RECs are a creation of the 1930s New Deal, aimed at lighting up rural households back when the majority of farmers had no electricity. RECs are beginning to push coal power aside in favor of renewables, and now it looks like gas is the next fossil fuel shoe to drop.
What’s All This About Solar Panels On Farmland?
At first glance it totally makes no sense to pull good farmland out of production for the sake of energy development. Well, glance again. With careful site selection and design, solar panels can provide overall benefits to the US agriculture profile in addition to clean power.
Here in the US, researchers are compiling a body of evidence that solar panels can double as valuable grazing areas and pollinator habitats, while conserving water and soil.
They can also result in increased yields for some crops, partly because they provide shade during the hottest parts of the day.
That cooling thing works both ways. PV technology is more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity in cooler weather, and plant growth around the solar panels helps provide a cooling effect.
On top of all that, solar arrays provide a reliable revenue stream for farmers, who could certainly use the relief in today’s hyper-stressed environment.
Solar Panels Pushing Aside Gas, Eventually
As in other states, Michigan has an open space preservation policy that limits the use of farmland for non-agricultural purposes.
Open space preservation in Michigan comes with a carrot in the form of tax credits. It also comes with a big, fat stick. Farmers who take land out of the program forfeit their credit and have to pay back seven additional years of credit.
The state has already carved out an exemption for wind turbines, based on their relatively small footprint. Solar panels could join the club if solar advocates can show that farming can coexist with PV arrays, too.
Meanwhile, a couple of developments involving RECs in other states bode ill for natural gas stakeholders.
Our friend over at Energy News Network report that four RECs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois are experimenting with home energy storage for their customers.
Energy storage is source neutral, which means that fossil power can come into play. However, this particular project also includes a solar power element.
Another REC project in Minnesota involves one of our new favorite topics, solar-wind hybrids.
The Minnesota project is the first of its kind to cut costs by funneling electricity from the solar panels through the wind equipment.
That’s important because the peak output of solar panels and wind turbines occurs at different times, which provides an opportunity to cut costs by reducing the need for energy storage facilities (the fancyspeak word for that is complementarity, btw).
Rural Electric Cooperatives: Think Local, Act Local
Circling back around to that thing about solar power and farmland, the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association lists 9 member cooperatives serving 750,000 ratepayers in the state.
It’s a pretty good bet that MECA members are looking next door at the fresh burst of renewable energy activity in Wisconsin, which until recently was an epicenter of fossil fuel advocacy.
How times have changed. An REC in Wisconsin called Dairyland is all excited about a new utility scale array of solar panels that will provide agricultural benefits:
The site will feature grass and seed mixes below panels and within the site that will help build soil nutrients and reduce fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use.
The facility will create pollinator habitat as well as possible opportunities for grazing.
Reduced stormwater runoff and soil erosion from the land hosting solar panels can improve downstream water quality.
Do tell! That’s just one of more than a dozen solar-plus-pollinator sites in Dairyland’s portfolio, btw.
Dairyland is still looking to increase its natural gas portfolio, at least for now. However, the big picture does not look so good for fossil stakeholders. Dairyland is part of a sprawling network of electricity buyers under the Touchstone umbrella, and Touchstone has this to say about the future of RECs:
As a not-for-profit entity, members know they can trust their electric co-op, because it was created to deliver on the promise of providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity to members – not to generate money for shareholders.
With safe, low cost alternatives popping up all over the place it’s difficult to see how natural gas, let alone coal, can maintain a foothold in the REC landscape much longer.
Also there’s this: Touchstone’s network consists of 450 local members in 46 states, which essentially makes it the largest utility in the US.