Balancing Progress and Preservation: Maine's Mitigation Fee Program for Solar Siting and Farmland Protection - American Farmland Trust

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December 1st, 2023

Balancing Progress and Preservation: Maine’s Mitigation Fee Program for Solar Siting and Farmland Protection

by Eliza Paterson

A complimentary planting of corn, squash, and beans grown between solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, Colorado

How do we strategically plan for a future with increased renewable energy while safeguarding farmland for essential food and fiber production?

Across New England, the need for farmland protection is steadily increasing. In an era of shifting infrastructure needs with new land use pressures and mounting demands for energy, strategies for protecting farmland could also have applications for renewable energy. In the context of ongoing conversations, AFT’s staff recently interfaced with Maine stakeholders to explore opportunities to advance solar while keeping farmland in agricultural production. Read on to learn from their experiences.

Before starting at American Farmland Trust, I worked as a farmer and researcher at Jack’s Solar Garden, the nation’s largest agrivoltaics research site. AFT defines agrivoltaics as “agricultural production and generation of solar energy in an intentional and integrated way on the same piece of land throughout the life of the solar array,” meaning, thoughtful use of solar panels on farmland.

Eliza Paterson, left, at Jack’s Solar Garden, with colleague Amy Marble.

While working at Jack’s, I learned about the potential for solar and agriculture to coexist and share the same piece of land, realizing that solar and agriculture could even benefit from one another in preventing the conversion of farmland to housing and urban development. Through my recent work with AFT, I have developed a better understanding of the need for best management practices and stronger policies for solar development on farmland. In New England, where demand for renewable energy development is rapidly increasing, legislation and programs are beginning to address this kind of land use management while promoting the advancement of renewable energy siting. I am encouraged by Maine’s new solar siting mitigation fee program, which is configured to advance solar development while protecting farmland. This effort has engaged diverse stakeholders and represents a regionally important step to balance solar energy development and farmland protection.

AFT participated in Maine’s 2021 Agricultural Solar Stakeholder Group, which was convened by the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF). The 2021 Agricultural Solar Stakeholder Group was tasked with releasing a final report to the legislature and DACF, allowing AFT and other agricultural stakeholders across Maine to share expertise. AFT emphasized our commitment to sustainable land use, contributed insights on agrivoltaic research, and advocated for measures that balance renewable energy expansion with farmland preservation. A key recommendation from stakeholders was for Maine to adopt a mitigation fund that would provide financial support to Maine’s Farmland Protection Program, also known as DACF’s Working Farmland Access and Protection Program (WFAPP), through the collection of mitigation fees.

A mitigation fee is an additional cost charged to developers that helps offset any potential negative impacts that an infrastructural project might have on the environment and/or surrounding community. The funds generated by a mitigation fee go into a fund to be used for the benefit of the surrounding community. Mitigation fees act as disincentives by discouraging harmful development with financial penalties.

Following this comprehensive stakeholder engagement process, which integrated recommendations from farmland organizations across the state, including Maine Farmland Trust, the Maine State legislature introduced LD 1881, An Act Regarding Compensation Fees And Related Conservation Efforts To Protect Soils And Wildlife And Fisheries Habitat From Solar And Wind Energy Development And High-Impact Electric Transmission Lines Under The Site Location Of Development Laws. AFT supported and submitted testimony on this important bill, which was passed by the Maine State legislature and signed by Governor Mills in July 2023. Maine’s compensatory mitigation program will foster more equitable and transparent solar energy development while providing additional funding to protect the state’s remaining farmland, ensuring its continuity in agricultural production.

LD 1881 “is a strong step towards more balanced solar siting in the State, recognizing that our best farmland is a precious and finite natural resource that should be reserved for current and future agricultural production.”

Shelley Megquier, Policy Director for Maine Farmland Trust

In October 2023, DACF created a public comment period for stakeholders to offer input on designing and implementing a compensatory mitigation program. AFT’s involvement and comment submission to DACF are steps forward in addressing the pressing need for strategic planning for a future with increased renewable energy while safeguarding farmland for essential food and fiber production.

Farmland protection funding in Maine is a critical issue. According to the 2020 Farms Under Threat New England report, 18% of Maine’s land (3,400 acres) was converted to urban and highly developed use areas between 2001-2016. Meanwhile, 82% (15,300 acres) was threatened by low-density residential development. Statistics from AFT’s report 2040 Farms Under Threat demonstrate the national significance of this issue; without intervention, another 18.4 million acres of farmland and ranchland around the country will be lost or compromised. Additionally, smaller farms will be disproportionately impacted, and the nation’s most productive, versatile, and resilient (PVR) farmland and ranchland – also known as Nationally Significant land – will be more than 50% more likely to be converted than other agricultural land.

According to AFT’s 2023 Purchase of Agriculture Conservation Easement Survey, Maine DACF’s Farmland Protection Program has protected 42 farms – 9,752 acres of farmland – from development, which is far less than any other New England state. One of Maine’s biggest barriers to farmland protection is consistent funding for the Land for Maine’s Future fund, a primary funding stream for these efforts.

Maine’s progressive approach to instituting mitigation fees for solar development is a model for other states that grapple with similar challenges. LD 1881’s innovative solar mitigation program will provide greater incentives for agrivoltaics like the agriculturally compatible, dual-use project design and operations I described at Jack’s Solar Garden. By prioritizing farmland preservation through stakeholder-informed policies, Maine is setting a benchmark for sustainable land management.

Comparison of conventional solar array vs a dual-use field incorporating solar panels and livestock grazing

AFT recommends that state governments assess compensatory mitigation fees to mitigate impacts on farm communities from permanent development, utility-scale solar, and transmission development. Mitigation fees can be an effective strategy to disincentivize the development of priority land for protection, but if conversion is unavoidable, to collect funding that can help other land stay in production in the host community by investing in farmland protection, farm viability, and farmland affordability.

If you want to learn more about this topic, you can follow the links to the AFT testimony on LD 1881 and our comments on DACF.

I would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for contributing to the blog: Ethan Winter, Chelsea Gazillo, Julie Fine, and Shelley Megquier from Maine Farmland Trust.