Emerging technologies allow solar panels and agriculture to coexist

URBANA, IL — Renewable energy technologies like wind turbines and solar panels are gaining traction, but they sometimes face local opposition because they take up valuable space that could be used for agricultural production. Agrivoltaics enables dual land use by combining solar cells with crops or grazing animals on the same field. But this emerging technology faces regulatory headwinds because it doesn’t fall under the agricultural category.

New research The University of Illinois (U of I) College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) presents an overview of zoning and tax regulations affecting agriculture in the United States, identifying challenges and solutions.

“Placing solar panels and agriculture in the same place has many advantages. Demand for renewable energy is increasing, and agricultural land is shrinking. If you can find a technology that can combine these uses, you can reduce the overall potential of either technology alone, but you will achieve better results. It can be a great financial diversification for the farmer,” said one of the study’s authors, Tyler Swanson. Swanson is an undergraduate student in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the U of I. He works under the guidance of ACE Professor and Program Director Brian Endres at Bock. serves as a research assistant in the agricultural law and policy program.

Since this is a more established practice, we have focused on regulations regarding solar panels and grazing. It can be difficult to find crops that grow under solar panels, but for grazing animals, especially sheep, this combination works well. Sheep graze around the solar panels and provide necessary plant care.

“It doesn’t matter to the sheep to hang a wire or a pole; As far as I know, there have never been any problems with sheep damaging the solar panel structure. They usually just hang around, eat grass, sleep, and lie under the tiles when it’s hot outside. They save the solar producer money because they no longer have to hire a mowing company to cut the vegetation,” Swanson said.

Swanson and co-author Jessica Guarino, a postdoctoral fellow at ACE, identified zoning and tax regulations across the United States. They found that the installation of agricultural power plants declassified the area as agricultural land, increasing regulatory burdens, taxes, and sometimes fiscal penalties for violating zoning regulations. To complicate matters, state and local policies may differ.

“Although states are promoting policies that support the integration of agriculture and renewable energy, the push is often local,” Guarino said. “Especially in rural areas, there is a lot of opposition to the introduction of new technologies in high value agricultural fields. For farmers who farm that land, it’s often a generational thing, so there’s an emotional investment. Such social tensions translate into legal challenges in the agricultural sector.”

The researchers hope that their work will encourage a shift towards policies that support agricultural production, with tax breaks instead of dual land use tax penalties.

Swanson and Guarino identified another legal issue affecting the implementation of agricultural power plants, which is the contractual negotiation between farmers and solar panel manufacturers.

Typically, a solar producer contracts with a farmer to bring sheep to the solar panel facility. In some cases, solar panels are installed on existing crops and the farmer provides vegetation management through grazing. In either case, both parties must protect their property.

“You have a solar manufacturer with a multi-million dollar power generation facility and they want their sheep to do no harm to it. But you also have farmers with thousands of dollars or more in sheep and they want to protect them, too,” Swanson explained.

“In general, the cost of insurance will be higher because of the need to cover the damage to the solar farm, as well as potential damage to the sheep. There are also travel costs for farmers depending on how far they are from the solar farm.”

Swanson and Guarino include several examples of contracts in their paper, including one with the American Solar Pasture Association, a trade group that helps sheep farmers negotiate with a solar development company.

Swanson is currently a senior fellow at ACE with a concentration in environmental economics and policy. Working on a research project was a great way to apply classroom learning to real-world situations, she said.

“In my classes, I learn about these different ways to diversify agricultural and environmental markets, and research methods and literature reviews, but now I can apply it to my life,” he said.

“When I was a freshman, I aimed to publish my paper by the time I graduated. So I’m accomplishing this goal just in time. It was fantastic working with Jessica on this paper and we are working on other exciting projects in the near future.”

– This press release is the first University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Applied and Environmental Sciences website

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