Major transformations in energy generation are leading to an increase in land used for solar and wind development in the United States. At the same moment, the agricultural industry is shifting to more efficient food production with a focus on balancing the role farmland plays in fostering resilient local food systems. With increasing demand and limited resources, both the renewables and agricultural industries benefit from a shared understanding of progress and balance of land use.
Farmland protection has been in place since 1980, when the Farmland Protection Policy Act was passed to minimize the impact that federal programs have on the unnecessary and irreversible conversion of farmland to nonagricultural use. This seeks to manage the pressures of redeveloping valuable farmland for projects such as housing developments, road widenings or a municipal landfill expansion.
Today, some states have identified farmland preservation as a key consideration in siting projects like solar or wind farms, or other large development projects. States have even gone as far as to disincentivize solar development on agricultural land. The state regulations around farmland protection vary, however, as other states have not even identified farmland as a land type to avoid for renewable development.
Whether the project is for renewable generation, manufacturing or transmission and distribution, projects benefit from having a detail-oriented and knowledgeable team with the right tools in place. Teams with routing and siting capabilities, coupled with a breadth of industry experience, can streamline site selection, manage permitting requirements and balance sector demands.
Increased awareness around farmland protection policies can mitigate delays in permitting and create innovative opportunities for development. It is increasingly more common and attainable for renewable generation installations to cohabitate with farmland. Engineers and farmers across the U.S. are working together to find solutions that focus on collaboration, not competition. This also provides an avenue for the agricultural sector — one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide — to seek more sustainable solutions.
If cohabitation of farmland and energy sources occurs, or if a project simply abuts farmland, it is valuable to employ an agricultural inspector to see that all aspects of installation and construction protect the farmland from compaction so the soil can be used in the future. Agricultural inspectors can also help manage pastures, engage with farmers to coordinate schedules around harvesting and monitor postconstruction.
No matter the location, project developers need to consider the federal, state and local regulations to protect farmland and support the viability of agricultural sectors. Just as developers must consider project impacts on natural resources, wetlands or endangered species, developers must consider impacts on farmland and understand the farmland protection policies in place.
The renewable permitting process benefits from taking a robust, collaborative approach to public involvement at the onset of a project’s life span.