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Solar versus farmland

image credit: Solar, wind and sheep farming on the prairie. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca
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Producer Green Energy Futures

David Dodge is the producer of Green Energy Futures, a series of more than 260 documentaries on clean energy leaders, projects and technologies from across Canada. You can see his stories at...

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  • Oct 13, 2021
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By David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

The Claresholm Solar Project is the largest solar project in Canada. At 132 megawatts, this solar farm has 477,198 solar modules and produces enough electricity to power 33,000 homes in Alberta.

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As I drove down the road about 10 kilometers from Claresholm there it was – a sprawling sea of solar modules as far as the eye can see.

But what happened to the 1,280 acres of farmland that this solar farm occupies?

As I pulled up to the side of the road 13 km east of Claresholm I met Glen Walter, a member of the Granum Hutterite Colony. He smiled and continued to pump water into troughs on the other side of the fence inside the solar farm.

Walter was providing water for the 1,200 sheep grazing in this section of the solar farm.

This was the summer of the heat dome over the prairies. Temperatures reached near 40 Celsius. The grazing crops were poor and many area ranchers were short of feed.

Thanks to a creative arrangement between the Granum Colony (the landowners) and Capstone Infrastructure (the solar farm owner) the Colony had plenty of feed for their sheep this summer.

Walter told us the story, but couldn’t do an on-camera interview without permission.

Driving around to the Granum Substation where the solar electricity is fed into the grid I met Gregory Lamming, an outgoing guy who does quality assurance for Capstone.

Solar and sheep symbiosis

“Sometimes when solar farms are built, you're taking the land away from previous uses,” says Lamming. “This land here was used for grazing in the past. And since we brought the sheep back, it's being used for grazing again.”

In fact, most of the lands leased for the solar farm were grazing lands before the solar farm was built, and now with Canada’s largest solar farm in full operation, it is once again grazing land as it was before.

“The farmers and the corporation actually benefit from the sheep. The sheep control the weeds, and they control the grass,” says Lamming.

Without the sheep, the solar farm owners would have to cut the grass and weeds or worse yet apply herbicides to control them and keep them from interfering with the solar farm operation.

The solar farm is fenced into 300 - 400 acre parcels and the sheep are rotated through the parcels on a regular basis.

“We have about 1,200 head here now, and it takes about a month to clear 300 or 400 acres. It's incredible how fast they, they chew it all up,” says Lamming.

Gregory Lamming of Capstone Infrastructure at Claresholm Solar Farm. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

Grazing with benefits

The solar farm is also providing a few unanticipated benefits to the grazing lands.

“They [the sheep] love to hide underneath the panels when it gets hot around here,” says Lamming. “They like to hide and cuddle around the posts and take it easy on the hot days.”

We also noticed when it gets really hot, as it did this summer the grass seemed to grow better under the shade of the solar modules as well.

The sheep seem perfectly adapted to solar farm-like. They don’t even have to duck as they saunter underneath the solar modules in search of shade.

Sheep and Solar Gallery

Solar and sheep at Claresholm Solar Farm
Sheep dot the landscape beneath Canada's largest solar farm benefiting the solar company and the farmers. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

So do the sheep cause any problems?

Lamming smiled and said, “They poop just like any other herbivore.”  And this says Lamming is bringing the soil back to an even better quality than it was.

“I love hanging out with the sheep. They're calm. It really makes me feel like I'm in a natural setting when I'm at work – it’s not what you would expect for a power plant.”

For the landowners, grazing continues as it was before the solar farm. The difference is the Granum Colony provided millions of dollars worth of products and services to the solar project when it was under construction and now collects lease payments for the duration of the lease.

As for Lamming, he landed in the renewable energy industry about eight years ago.

"I got into renewables in 2013 in Ontario when they were running the feed-in tariff program. I built several farms throughout Ontario ranging from 35 megawatts to 100 megawatts.”

The work dried up in Ontario when the provincial government switched gears so he followed the work to Alberta where there’s a solar boom going on.

Things are pretty good these days for a quality assurance guy at a solar farm that is now completed. “It is a very laid-back moment for the farm right now,” says Lamming. Once things are running smoothly he’ll be sent off to another solar farm under construction.

Green Energy Futures · 298. What happened to all that farmland under Canada's largest solar farm?

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 13, 2021

“Sometimes when solar farms are built, you're taking the land away from previous uses,” says Lamming. “This land here was used for grazing in the past. And since we brought the sheep back, it's being used for grazing again.”

I also wonder-- are there available tax breaks for landowners using their land in this way? I ask because in my neck of the woods in Florida, there are plenty of plots of lands that have cows living on them because that allows them to take advantage of 'agricultural' tax credits while the land remains undeveloped, despite the fact that this land is not actually used for farming. 

David Dodge's picture
David Dodge on Oct 13, 2021

To us, this is a very important story because at Green Energy Futures we hear the refrain of "what happens to all that farmland" all the time with regard to solar projects. It's also a happy coincidence that this project, at 132 megawatts, just happens to be the biggest solar farm in Canada (at least for now).

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Oct 16, 2021

David, a great story of how solar panels can provide valuable shade . In HOT SUNNY  Phoenix along with surroundings cities and Tucson we get shaded parking. It also goes great with Electric Vehicles.  My home panels shade my homes roof while making clean power to run our home and vehicle. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 18, 2021

Makes sense to use solar on some structures in the desert.
Other areas, not so much.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 18, 2021

Sheep are a minor contributor to farming.

Crops and solar energy are incompatible. Cattle and solar are incompatible.

Fact is, solar energy land requirements are significant and adversely impact the environment. As with most activities, boils down to how much land are we willing to sacrifice.

David Dodge's picture
David Dodge on Oct 21, 2021

In this case sheep were not minor, but the chosen species for the farmers. There is work ongoing to find ways of making solar compatible with cattle as well. As for impacts many solar farms use screw piles to support the solar racking and for the most part these are screwed into the ground with almost no impact on the surface. To us this is not an issue of either or, or "sacrificing land," but rather a simple challenge to agronomists and engineers to see if they can help define best practices that do not "sacrifice land" and provide a benefit to the landowner and the land. Here's one example: https://www.dtnpf.com/agriculture/web/ag/equipment/article/2020/02/10/solar-panels-can-provide-energy-cows

Where I come from the oil industry has something like 170k abandoned oil wells. Rightly or wrongly the farmers that host these well pads have learned to benefit through lease payments and the provision of services. Municipalities have grown dependent (rightly or wrongly) on taxes from the developments. Solar can be much lower impact than oil and gas and they provide a long term, renewable option for the landowners and the grid as well. 

One such farmer in southern Alberta grew up on a farm, worked on and off for the oil industry in addition to farming and had a tough go of it. He's now done the research and is in fact doing pilot projects to replace those abandoned well pads with mini solar farms. They can fit about 750 kW on a typical pad. If the idea catches on and only 10% of those well pads were developed with solar the solar farm would be 6,200 megawatts, the size of a very large former coal plant. And again the farmers benefit from lease payments, the municipality from taxes and there are opportunities for farmers and irrigation district to own these solar farms. Don't get me wrong, there are sacrifices we make in everything we do. But the idea does contribute to some rather important challenges: climate change, diversification on the farm and if done right multiple use on farmland. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 26, 2021

Take a look at Google maps and view the US Midwest, including Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa. Do you really believe such agricultural lands are compatible with large scale solar energy farms that take vast acreages out of production.

Crops (including forage production) need sunshine and that need is incompatible with solar energy.

Oil production well land requirements are minor and  inconsequential, as readily observed by looking at farming regions that host such wells.

David Dodge's picture
David Dodge on Oct 27, 2021

There are sites that are better and more compatible than others, no doubt. But there are probably many, many sites that are entirely appropriate for this sort of development. 

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Oct 28, 2021

Are you kidding?  

 

Let's do some napkin math.

 

First - last year at this time the US had about 41 GW of solar farms and an additional 26 GW of small-scale (rooftop) solar.  This provided a little over 3% of US electricity demand. Let's be bold and say we want to increase the total capacity of solar farms by 800 GW - 20x and we want to do all of this in the Midwest. How would we do that without using valuable farmland?

 

How about if we use a small portion(10%) of the following land.

 

1) Land currently planted with corn for ethanol

The USDA’s June World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates report indicated that the 2020-’21 outlook for corn used for ethanol would total roughly 5.4 billion bushels. (30.2 million corn acres)

at 1 MW per 6 acres that is the equivalent of 5,000 GW of installed solar Let's devote 10% of the ethanol land (500 GW) to solar and use it to charge EVs.  Wow, we just got started and were almost done.

 

2) Land that farmers are paid not to farm...another 20 million acres.. Add solar to 10% of that and you have an additional 300 GW of solar. We already hit our 800 GW total.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was created in 1985 to incentivize landowners to leave some of their marginal land unplanted, a plan meant to protect the environment by reducing agricultural runoff into streams and rivers, preserving wildlife habitats, and preventing erosion. Today, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) “rents” about 21 million acres of farmland from landowners, typically for 10 years at a time—a tiny fraction of the total land farmed nationwide. 

3) Land that is categorized as "rangeland" - in other words not cropland or pastureland. Here is example from your neighbor Oklahoma. Use 10% of that rangeland in Oklahoma and you can add 220 GW of solar.

Note:  Here are rangeland acres for 3 states you mentioned.

  • Kansas - 16,083,100
  • Nebraska - 22,441,100
  • Iowa - 0

Take 10% of the rangeland acres in these states and you have another 640GW of solar.

 

One last exercise to illustrate:

Let assume that we want to add enough solar to power 50% of SPP grid

- Total generation on SPP is about 250,000 GWh/year

- Let take 2% of the 30M corn acres devoted to ethanol. That would give us 600,000 acres for solar farms.

- You could install 100 GW of solar on this amount of land

 - 100 GW of solar at a conservative 15% CF would provide 131,400 GWh of electricity/year - 53% of total SPP generation.

 

So in reality a tiny, tiny portion of land is needed and if chosen appropriately would  displace ZERO acres of valuable farmland

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 28, 2021

"How about if we use a small portion (10%) of the following land."
 

Because it's not your land to use, Joe.

How about you go and buy some of that land, if there's so much money to be made? Apparently the people who live there don't believe untold riches await them, if only they plaster their beautiful countryside with industrial crap.

Honestly, can't say I blame them.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Oct 29, 2021

Bob - its almost as if you think the Midwest is a bunch of small family farmers picking tomatoes and bringing their produce to the local farmer market vs. industrial farms growing commodity crops like corn and soybeans. Time to move forward past "Green Acres".

Apparently the people who live there don't believe untold riches await them, if only they plaster their beautiful countryside with industrial crap.

Obviously there are already a lot of landowners who have leased their land to wind developers - so apparently they don't agree with you telling them what they can do. Here is article talking about recent record price for land in Iowa...One wind turbine on 80 acres was enough to boost price. Plenty of landowners who like the income from wind plus the boost in land value.

The bull-run on Iowa farmland sales continues to play out in August. Less than two weeks after a piece of farm ground in Iowa sold for $19,000 per acre, a new record sale was posted in Iowa Friday, cashing in at $22,600 per acre. That tops the previous record by $300 per acre.

The sale was on 80 acres of ground in Grundy County, Iowa, which is located west of Waterloo. The ground did include a wind turbine, which helped drive up the price as of the record sale.

“The farm did have a wind turbine on it,” says Jim Rothermich, of Iowa Appraisal and Research. “The buyer was an investor-buyer, and the runner-up was also an investor. So, the wind turbine income stream did help the purchase price reach that high, but most of that 80 acres, or the lion’s share, was all farmland.”

What about Solar? Here's one example... this one shows solar being developed on undeveloped land. Again part of the CRP program.

 

 

Over the next decade we will see literally thousands of these projects. Like I said earlier- using a tiny portion of land the middle of the US (TX,OK, KS,NE,SD,ND, MN ,IA,MO, AR) can easily provide 80% of their electricity needs with wind and solar. Maybe nuclear can provide the remaining 20%.

 

How about you go and buy some of that land, if there's so much money to be made? 

Kind of weird that you mention this... I am exploring possibility of joining an LLC for a solar investment in TX.

 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 29, 2021

I live in Kansas. Large scale solar is not compatible with Midwest farming and agriculture. Wind turbines are better suited, but they are a major league eyesores because the machines are basically sky scrappers. Some Kansas counties have banned their use. Raises interesting questions on the rights of those living near the machines and visual pollution.  That is becoming a more fractious issue in Europe.

Farms in Western Kansas are of epic proportions, some approaching the size of Rhode Island.

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Oct 29, 2021

Joe Deely is right.  There is land that can be used for grazing and solar sites, in areas where oil drilling takes place if absolutely nothing else, and there are plenty of other cases.  Gary LaRue has PetroWarrior, as in https://www.mineralanswers.com/oklahoma/producers/petro-warrior-llc/11543

in Oklahoma, and I remember being there with the energy economists and thinking it would be good for both grazing and solar.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Oct 29, 2021

Michael you said...again...

Large scale solar is not compatible with Midwest farming and agriculture.

Repeating your argument does not make it correct...I just showed above how easily large scale solar can fit in any Midwest state with no disruption to actual farming of food.

Huge amounts of land already used for growing corn/ethanol. Huge amounts of marginal, unplanted land and huge amounts of rangeland.  Kansas in particular has huge amounts of rangeland. 

 

More wind and and new solar will cut KS coal contribution into low single digits(TWh) by 2030 - see chart below. Note: KS as a state produces more electricity than it needs - retail sales = 41 TWh - so in reality almost all current demand is already met by wind/nuclear.

 

Here is a recent article on wind in KS.

       Kansas’s first big wind farm turns 20. Here’s how it’s going

A Kansas wind farm turns 20

FPL Energy’s Gray County Wind Farm near Montezuma, Kansas, was built in 2001, and it’s still the largest wind farm in Kansas. 

The 112 megawatt wind farm features 170 turbines and can power 33,000 homes. The turbines are scattered over 12,000 acres, but only six acres are used for wind turbines and roads. Black Hills Energy purchases its electricity. 

So how’s it going, 20 years on? Wichita’s NBC affiliate KSN reportsthat the Gray County Wind Farm has brought $5.3 million in payments to the county, which has a population of around 6,000. Some of that money is funneled to local school districts.

It, along with three other wind farms, has also paid for two new parking lots, a kitchen upgrade at the elementary school, and a new grandstand at the district’s football stadium, and that meant the county didn’t have to raise taxes to pay for those improvements.

KSN spoke with Orville Williams, who leased part of his land to the wind farm and is also a county commissioner, and he just signed up for another 20-year lease. Williams said the wind farm has posed no problems as he’s farmed around the towers:

I like them. They’ve been a very great economic boost for this area.

Most people around here, I don’t think even notice them anymore.

Anytime you can get money, but you’ve gotten the money from an outside source instead of having to get it from your local population, then it’s a win-win.

And Montezuma Mayor Grant Salmans said:

We hear somebody in a certain part of the state that doesn’t want one. And we’re kind of like that doesn’t really make much sense to us.

KS is moving toward a wind/nuclear/solar grid...definitely another renewables/zero carbon success story.

   Evergy issues RFP for wind power projects of up to 1,000 megawatts

Evergy Inc.'s efforts to shift away from coal-fired power plants in favor of renewable energy sources got a boost on Monday.

The Kansas City-based utility released a request for proposals to purchase up to 1,000 megawatts of wind energy [PDF] that could be in service by the end of 2026 or earlier.

   AEP seeks 3 GW of wind, 300 MW of solar

The RFP seeks bids for up to 3,000 MW of wind resources, up to 300 MW of solar and short-term accredited deliverable capacity up to 250 MW. The wind resources must each be at least 100 MW, interconnect to the 14-state Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and must be located in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas or Missouri. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 30, 2021

Just what the state needs: another Californian who knows what's best for Kansas. You gonna live there, too, among your beautiful wind turbines? I didn't think so.

Why would you, when you can donate a few dollars to the local school district and suck the local economy dry from your living room in California. Then, your bird grinders will be someone else's problem. Is that the plan?

"TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas legislative committee’s leader lit a political prairie fire with a proposal that critics say would end investments in a wind energy industry that has grown into the state’s largest supplier of electricity.

State Senate Utilities Committee Chairman Mike Thompson said Wednesday that he is trying to protect landowners who fear that a proliferation of large turbines in their rural areas will drop property values and harm their quality of life. Thompson, a conservative Shawnee Republican, is pursuing a bill that would impose statewide regulations limiting turbines to one per square mile and keeping them 1.5 miles from any home or public building."

https://apnews.com/article/legislature-environment-kansas-utilities-energy-industry-9a959204c49da95beefe23bcf2ab9244

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Nov 3, 2021

Just what the state needs: another Californian who knows what's best for Kansas

Agree Bob - the landowners of Kansas have already spoken and continue to speak when they lease their land to developers. They certainly don't need you to tell them what's best.

As far as spokesman from Kansas - I'll stick with my guys.

KSN spoke with Orville Williams, who leased part of his land to the wind farm and is also a county commissioner, and he just signed up for another 20-year lease. Williams said the wind farm has posed no problems as he’s farmed around the towers:

I like them. They’ve been a very great economic boost for this area.

Most people around here, I don’t think even notice them anymore.

Anytime you can get money, but you’ve gotten the money from an outside source instead of having to get it from your local population, then it’s a win-win.

And Montezuma Mayor Grant Salmans said:

We hear somebody in a certain part of the state that doesn’t want one. And we’re kind of like that doesn’t really make much sense to us.

You on the other hand have chosen - State Senate Utilities Committee Chairman Mike Thompson. Anti-vaccine. Big coal supporter. Doesn't believe in climate change.  Evolution denier. In other words - nut job.

 

 

 

 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Oct 18, 2021

Very nice.  Any response to cattle and solar are incompatible?  And how much labor does it take to rotate the PV cells?

David Dodge's picture
David Dodge on Oct 27, 2021

There are examples of solar farms being designed with cattle in mind. There is no labor requirement for rotating solar modules. Developers are either using fixed systems and they choose an orientation that maximizes production over the course of the year. The other option is some developers are using solar trackers. Personally the fixed option appears to be lower risk, lower maintenance and higher predictability in terms of revenues.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 29, 2021

Kind of easy to spot cars from Western Kansas - large dents from hail. Lots of dust as well.  Is also in Tornado alley.  Large scale solar is more trouble than it's worth for farming and cattle production.

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