Vegetative Management Considerations: This week’s article is co-written by John Hay, Extension Energy Educator and myself. Vegetative management is an important part of solar. The land below the solar panels will need to be maintained in some way. Lately, more people are looking at ways to complement vegetative management with solar to ease the land use conflict and bring more value to the land beneath solar production.
We asked several questions of the EDF Renewable representatives the night of the public informational forum. The plan from them for the time being appeared to be focused on mowing the grass below the solar panels. There seemed to be some openness to learning more about options beyond mowed grass. From the EDF K-Junction FAQ site, there is a link to a news article explaining how solar, cattle, and crops can work together: https://www.edf-re.com/project/k-junction-solar/faq/.
Regardless of what the vegetation is, should the project go through, someone will need to manage the vegetation. We were told that often 5-6 outside contractors are hired. We suggested should some local people currently be interested in this, it could provide an opportunity for them to obtain additional income or off-set a very small portion of the income lost in the ag community beyond landowners.
Grazing Options: The reality of cattle grazing is not good with solar unless the panels are elevated to a height of at least 7’ and conduit is buried underground. Sheep and free-range chickens could be options. We currently don’t have that scale of sheep/free-range chicken production in the County area. It potentially could be another income source should the project go through and a few choose to pursue this. There is an American Solar Grazing Association which is member-driven and members ask questions, conduct research, and share questions/answers with each other: https://solargrazing.org/.
Agrivoltaics is the growing of harvestable crops below the solar panels. The crops wouldn’t include traditional corn and soybeans. They could include different grasses for grazing, alfalfa, and small equipment haying (depending on panel height and spacing). They could include pollinator species. Small acres (1-10 acres or so per quarter) could include specialty crops such as hops, grapes, vegetables, fruits, woody florals. For those situations, it would entail elevating the solar panels. There’s been some research on incorporating different types of vegetable and flower production in how the plants are arranged for dealing with sun/shade at different times of the day. This resource shares more about agrivoltaics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7mN1ks0hyUneed.
Wells: There’s been a number of concerns about the wells on these irrigated pieces of land. Specific questions regarding this can be directed to the NRD. Grazing and/or use for harvestable crops under the solar array could necessitate a well.
Vegetative Screenings are the use of plants as a screen to obstruct the view of the solar panels. At the public informational meeting, we were told that landowners and neighbors would need to request this. This is something that can be written into contracts.
The above options/considerations require cooperation of the solar developer and may need changes in system design regarding the solar panel height and the ability for people to enter the solar field. Solar farms are fenced and have limited access due to electrical risk. These risks must be addressed before agrivoltaic or grazing options are possible. For vegetative management regarding vegetative screenings, grass or pollinator species, should the project move forward, we’d recommend they be established prior to construction to aid in success of their establishment.
Farm Base Acres: In talking with Kathy Anderson with the State FSA office, it’s hard to know exactly what will happen to base acres depending on how the contracts are written. It’s a possibility of a permanent loss of base acres, ultimately dependent upon how many acres of cropland there is and how many base acres were assigned to each farm. Each situation will be farm by farm. If the farm had full base (80 ac crop ground and 80 ac base), and 60 acres were being used for solar, 60 base acres of solar would be removed from that total leaving 20 base acres. If there isn’t full base (80 ac crop ground and 60 acres of base), the gap of 20 “free acres” would be put towards the acres in solar and the base would be reduced to 20 acres. If the ground was in CRP, contracts with solar are not allowed. Thus, one needs to ask the company to pay back the CRP contract if they want a CRP parcel.