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Pa. group pitches farms on solar model that keeps farmland usable, takes up less space

Sheep graze at a solar farm.
Heather Ainsworth
Sheep graze at a solar farm at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. As panels spread across the landscape, the grounds around them can be used for native grasses and flowers that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Some solar farms are being used to graze sheep.

Solar development on farmland is happening across central Pennsylvania — in some cases generating opposition from people who don’t like the look of solar panels and object to the loss of open land.

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture is working to introduce farmers to a different way of building solar farms that allows farming to continue and creates a smaller footprint. They hope it’s a way to address concerns in communities that have objected to large-scale solar.

Additionally, land leases can provide a more stable income for farms while enabling them to be a source of renewable energy.

“Solar is a really strong interest among our 7500 members and beyond,” said Sara Nicholas, a policy strategist with Pasa. “What farmers that we have talked to really would like is to integrate solar into their ongoing agricultural production.”

The model is called agrivoltaics, and it uses raised panels to generate solar energy while farming or livestock grazing continues beneath.

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Pennsylvania has a goal to produce 10% of its electricity from solar by 2030. It’s part of the state’s climate action plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and create a carbon-free grid.

Doug Neidich, CEO of GreenWorks Development, a solar development company that installs agrivoltaic panels on farms, said he’s gotten multiple calls about installing the raised panels.

“We’re moving forward on all of these projects to get farmers in a situation in which they’ve got more financial stability in what they do,” he said.

GreenWorks’ standard lease is 30 years, and if the farm doesn’t choose to renew, GreenWorks removes the panels and poles and the land can continue to be used for farming.

Pittsburgher Highlander Farm is working with Pasa and GreenWorks Development to install elevated panels to accommodate the farm’s Scottish Highland cattle. Owners Mark Smith and Dana O’Connor admit the 30-year lease term was initially off-putting. However, they see it as an opportunity to pursue sustainability goals and bring younger generations into farming, as well as provide a stable source of income. Land leases from GreenWorks Development range between $1,500 and $2,500 per acre per year.

“Agrivoltaics is one more big component in all of what we’re doing here, and I see it as a component that not only can coexist with what we’re doing but it enhances what we’re doing,” Smith said.

Both hope their installation, with the help of Pasa, can serve as an example for other interested farms. Nicholas explained there aren’t a lot of these projects in Pennsylvania, and that makes it difficult for farmers to gauge if a lease will be right for them.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania has funded two projects to study the impact and feasibility of solar on farms.

Dr. Hannah Wiseman, a professor at the Penn State College of Law and College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is the lead researcher on one study.

“One question we have is the extent to which agrivoltaics are in fact happening and are feasible and what factors need to be in place to make agrivoltaics more of a reality,” she said.

Her team is speaking to farmers, elected officials, and other community members where solar developments are proposed to answer the questions about solar’s impact.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.