Solar Energy Can Offer a Bright Future to Kentucky – if Development is Done Right
Once a novel approach to producing electricity, solar energy is now flourishing in the United States. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) writes that “in the last decade alone, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 42 percent.” Fueled in part by favorable federal policy, declining production costs, and increasing corporate and consumer demand for renewable power, this growth means that there is now enough solar capacity in the United States to fuel 18.9 million homes.
To curb climate change and its crushing consequences, America must continue to move toward cleaner forms of power, making solar energy even more common. While installing rooftop panels on homes, factories, stores, and warehouses should be a priority across the nation, much of the future growth in solar capacity is predicted to come from ground-mounted arrays in rural areas. In fact, as noted in a recent AFT blog post, the U.S. Department of Energy projects that around 10 million acres of rural land will be needed to accommodate solar arrays to help decarbonize the nation’s electrical grid by 2050. In other words, solar installations will continue to pop up throughout the countryside.
Like other states throughout the nation, Kentucky is reckoning with the acceleration of solar development in rural communities. Special concern is directed toward the potential impacts on productive farmland and farmers, especially smaller-scale family farmers and those who rent land. Some Kentuckians feel that the state should welcome solar development with open arms. Others oppose it entirely. Most folks fall somewhere in the middle, expressing support for solar and the benefits it could offer while fearing the damage it could cause if not pursued with care.
Building on roughly three decades of work in Kentucky, American Farmland Trust is committed to serving the people and places who comprise the Commonwealth’s agricultural communities. In addition to bringing AFT’s Smart Solar Siting framework to the state, we are actively connecting with farmers, researchers, and on-the-ground leaders to understand the opportunities and challenges posed by solar energy development.
As part of this work, AFT recently published “Solar Energy and Agriculture in Kentucky.” This document is the product of an intensive stakeholder engagement process in which we interviewed leaders from agricultural, environmental, energy, and community groups. Insights shared during these thorough, thoughtful conversations can—and should—guide Kentucky’s approach to solar development.
A few highlights from the report are below:
- Income from solar leases is substantial. Stakeholders recognize that lease payments offered to farmers for hosting arrays on their land can offer consistent income for years to come, helping with cash flow and other farm-related financial challenges. This steady income could enhance economic viability, especially for small and mid-sized farmers who devote a portion of their land to solar panels.
- Solar is cost-competitive with other sources of electricity. It can also create jobs. People are excited about cost-competitive clean energy in the state, and they see the burgeoning solar industry as a potential source of good jobs. Stakeholders from Appalachian Kentucky feel that job creation through renewable energy expansion could be part of a just transition.
- Solar and farming can be compatible. Several stakeholders support research on and implementation of “dual use solar,” which enables farmers to graze livestock and/or grow crops under solar panels. Also called “agrivoltaics,” this intentional, integrated system is seen as a sustainable approach to conserving farmland, supporting farmers, and producing renewable energy. Interest in dual use is growing across the nation, and with proper standards and incentives, it could work in Kentucky.
- Solar can be a threat to farmland. The above benefits aside, stakeholders expressed major worries about the widespread loss of farmland to sprawling solar installations. “My biggest concern is that it’s our prime farmland [developers] are going after,” one leader said. “This is what we cherish. It’s what makes Kentucky unique.” With that concern in mind, most stakeholders preferred placing panels on rooftops or marginal land. They also indicated interest in siting solar on brownfields and reclaimed mine lands, an approach taken by this Eastern Kentucky solar project recently highlighted in the New York Times.
- Stakeholders’ anxieties about farmland loss from solar expansion were exacerbated by the fact that Kentucky farmland is already being converted for other uses, like residential and commercial development. AFT found that between 2001-2016, over 265,000 acres of Kentucky agricultural land were converted to other uses.
- Engaging and supporting communities is paramount. In general, the protection of rural communities was a priority for stakeholders. Citing examples of industries that made massive profits off land and people while leaving a swath of destruction in their tracks, leaders urged respect for rural places. Ensuring that solar projects are required to have decommissioning plans after their lifespan was a specific recommendation, as was guaranteeing that local communities and farmers have a voice in the decision-making process for siting and regulating solar installations.
To complement AFT’s stakeholder engagement, we also conducted research on the treatment of solar development in Kentucky’s farmland protection policies. In “Kentucky Farmland Protection and Solar Siting Policy,” analysts found that existing farmland protection policies pay scant attention to the impacts of ground-mounted solar installations. Policymakers should address these deficiencies to ensure consistent, careful treatment of solar permitting and siting across the state.
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The above paragraphs share extensive, useful information, but the main points can be boiled down to a few short sentences. Solar energy must continue to grow if we are to address climate change. That growth can bring benefits to people and places, such as reduced electricity costs, steady income for farmers and landowners, and job creation. But when poorly planned or insufficiently regulated, solar development can exacerbate farmland loss and harm Kentucky’s rural communities.
We’re left with a question, one that we should answer with care and courage. Can solar energy bring a brighter future to Kentucky? Yes. But only if development is done well.