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Can Solar Panels be Considered a Crop?

When many people think of farmland, they may envision rows of crops such as wheat, corn, lettuce, and other green leafy foods, but likely not solar panels. Nevertheless, this is the radical idea currently being promoted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). From the government's point of view, installing solar panels on farmland would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide a cash “crop” for farmers. Considering the challenges faced by farmers today, such as trade wars and violent weather patterns, and the need to find alternative sources of energy, the idea has appeal for some. However, the concept faces several legal and bureaucratic obstacles.

The Argument Against the Panels

In states such as Michigan, farmland is governed by a 1974 preservation law. If farmers take land out of production, they would have to pay the government seven years of retroactive tax credits. Since farmland is zoned for farming and solar panels are not considered crops (you cannot eat them), if a farmer “grows” a solar farm, that could be found to be in violation of zoning laws.

Furthermore, filling up farmland space with rows of solar panels might meet opposition from land preservationists who have different views on how to best use the soil. The Department of Energy's own National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) website says: “By 2030, utility-scale solar installations could cover almost two million acres of land in the United States.” While the DOE's job may be to find alternative methods of producing energy, preservationists look to maintain what already exists. In addition, solar panels alter the microclimate under them. This could potentially cause the growth of fungi, pests, and invasive plant species, reversing whatever eco-friendly gains are achieved by the solar panels.

The Solar Panel Farm Concept May Still Be Worth Pursuing

The potential to produce massive quantities of clean energy is far too attractive for national and local government agencies to concede. Argonne National Laboratory has teamed up with the NREL to form a broad-based coalition of universities, clean energy corporations, interest groups, environmental protection advocates, and local governments with the goal of creating support for the establishment of solar farms. The coalition and other parties are working on a plan that will cause as little disturbance to farmland as possible. They argue that solar panels can be installed in a way that would disrupt the topsoil as minimally as possible, making it possible to plant native species among the panels. These plants would retain the topsoil, provide a habitat for beneficial insects, and improve soil health.

NREL scientists have also found ways for solar panels to help existing crops, such as by providing shade. This could reduce evaporation and protect plants from the strong and potentially damaging rays of the sun. All of this being said, scientists still have their work cut out for them before solar-panel farms can spring up around the country.


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