Food Service & Agriculture, Government, and Sustainability

Solar projects could be bright spot for local farmers

Michigan organizations collaborate to educate state on benefits of solar energy.

April 13, 2018
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Langeland Farms in Coopersville installed a solar energy project in 2014 that uses less than an acre of land. Courtesy Langeland Farms

There is an increasing interest in solar energy among farmers.

Since the beginning of 2018, Judy Palnau, media and public information specialist at the Michigan Agency for Energy, said her organization has collaborated with Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan Farm Bureau to conduct eight in-person meetings and webinars to educate over 500 farmers, rural landowners, solar developers and township officials from across the state about solar energy.

The interest arose when solar developers saw an opportunity to obtain farmland to create solar projects, said Charles Gould, MSU Extension educator.

“It started back in January when the Michigan Public Service Commission increased the avoided cost of electricity to 9.5 cents per kilowatt hour,” Gould said. “That 9.5 per kilowatt hour is profitable for a solar developer to put in a solar project, and that is when all solar developers swooped down on Michigan landowners wanting to talk to them about leasing or even purchasing land for solar projects.”

As a result, the Michigan Agency for Energy has been educating farmers on the benefits of leasing land for solar power plants that convert sunlight into electricity. Much of the discussion involved solar energy development on farmland, zoning approaches for solar energy, understanding solar energy lease agreements, taxation guidance, including the impact on PA 116, and the communities’ vision for solar energy systems.

Gould said solar arrays are made up of solar modules, also known as solar panels, that can be used on a portion of a farmland. He said although farm owners have the right to do whatever they want with their land, the highest use of land is for crop or food production, often referred to as prime land. Instead, solar production is used on vacant or marginal farmlands.

“Land use is really important to determine where solar goes,” Gould said. “There are about 4.5 million acres in the state of Michigan that is considered marginal land that would be perfect for solar projects. This would include land in center-pivot irrigation, land that is very sandy, brownfields, airports and landfills, but you also have the roofs of barns, the roofs of buildings, the roofs of houses.”

Merle Langeland is a third-generation farmer who owns Langeland Farms in Coopersville. He installed his solar project in 2014 in an effort to save energy on his 3,300-acre dairy and chicken farms.

“Back then, they were shutting down all these coal plants, and we thought in the future, electricity is just going to keep on going up,” Langeland said.

The solar project he installed is 125 kilowatts that takes up less than an acre of land. Langeland said he estimates it will last over 20 years because there is no maintenance needed for its upkeep.

He said he hardly ever has extra electricity because of all the equipment he uses on his farm on a daily basis.

“We just save on our bill every month, but Michigan does have net metering,” Langeland said. “So, if there is a time we are producing more than we are using, Consumers (Energy) buys it from us for the same price they charge us (on our electric bill).”

Despite the incentives for farmers, he said solar projects will never completely replace traditional methods.

“We can produce energy on a sunny day, but we can’t do it at night,” Langeland said.

Solar modules are designed to last between 20 and 25 years. One megawatt of solar electricity productivity requires 5 acres of land, according to Gould.

In order for solar energy to be beneficial to farmers who are leasing a portion of their marginal land, there needs to be green vegetation under the solar modules, so that when it rains, the water has somewhere to go.

“There needs to be enough plants grown in the solar project itself so that when water moves across the soil, it slows down and filters into the ground,” Gould said. “So, you want to have a good mix of native forbs and grasses to keep the water from eroding the soil.”

While there is a financial gain for leasing their land, farmers also save another way.

Palnau said farmers realize renewable energy can help them run their agriculture business more efficiently because they are potentially earning more by offsetting their electric bills.

The probability is high, Palnau said, for more educational sessions on solar energy.

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