Using Land for Solar – Yes, We Can Have it All

Now that summer has finally arrived, and we’re enjoying the longest days of the year, it’s a great time to think about solar energy.  

As solar prices continue to fall, the demand for it is increasing. More and more utilities, corporations and the general public want electricity produced from solar. They are attracted to its environmental and economic benefits.  

In fact, there are 67 gigawatts of solar capacity installed nationwide, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, which recently reported that 2.7 GW of solar photovoltaics were installed in the first quarter of 2019, the most solar ever installed in the first quarter of a year. With such a strong showing, Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables projects a 25 percent growth in solar installations over 2018.

While the southern and southwestern portions of the United States have the best solar resource, there are other parts of the country that may surprise you with their solar strength. 

Minnesota, for example, despite its northern latitude and the “fake news” that it’s always below zero and snowing, has an annual solar resource similar to parts of Florida and Texas.  Currently, Minnesota has a 1.5 percent solar energy standard and a state goal of reaching 10 percent solar by 2030. 

This is separate from Minnesota’s renewable energy standard. The state legislature is discussing several different ways to take the next steps on renewables — including increasing the RPS, using a “Clean Energy First” approach, or establishing a 100 percent carbon-free standard by 2050.  

The state has made incredible progress incorporating renewable energy into its generation resources, considering just a dozen years ago, Minnesota established the Next Generation Energy Act, which at the time was considered quite ambitious and trend-setting at 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. In fact, Minnesota has achieved its 25 percent by 2025 RES eight years early.

As Minnesota contemplates increasing its use of renewable energy generation, solar, no doubt, will be an important part of achieving these goals — especially since the cost of solar generation has decreased 88 percent since 2009. In November 2018, the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Solar Pathways Project issued the Solar Potential Analysis Report, which found that solar and wind can serve 70 percent of Minnesota’s electric load by 2050, and do so at a cost that is comparable to the cost of new natural gas generation.  

The report suggests that getting solar capacity to 10 percent by 2030 will grow Minnesota’s solar capacity from 250 megawatts at the end of 2016 to as much as 6,000 MW (6 GW) of capacity. To reach the 70 percent level, 14,000 to 22,000 MW (22 GW) of solar capacity by 2050 would be needed.

Naturally, when we begin to hear such large numbers associated with solar energy development, the question becomes: “What does 22,000 MW of solar really mean, and do we have enough land to do this?”

Let’s break this down and use Minnesota, which ranks 12th in the nation with 83,574 square miles of land area, as an example.

One megawatt of solar uses 7 to 10 acres of land. Using the most conservative estimate of 10 acres per megawatt, it would require roughly 60,000 acres or about 94 square miles to achieve 6 GW of solar capacity by 2030. This is about 0.1 percent of Minnesota’s entire land area. To achieve the 70 percent level by 2050, a conservative estimate of approximately 220,000 acres of land would be necessary. This represents just 0.4 percent of Minnesota’s total land area.

So, where should these solar installations be developed?    

Agricultural land is the most obvious option for solar because it is naturally wide open space, flat, with few trees, all of which maximize the ability to capture the sun’s rays. Also, there is usually good access to the transmission system in farming areas.  

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Minnesota has 25.5 million acres of farmland. If only farmland was used to reach Minnesota’s 10 percent solar energy goal, that would require only 0.2 percent of the 25.5 million acres used for farming crops. To reach the 70 percent level, only 0.86 percent of farmland would be needed. 

Using farmland for purposes other than growing crops isn’t new. For comparative purposes, consider the fact that Minnesota also has over 1 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which allows farmers to take their land out of production for a period of time for conservation purposes. Minnesota could accomplish its entire 10 percent goal for solar using only 5.6 percent of the land area that is enrolled in the CRP, or about 20 percent of CRP-designated land to reach the 70 percent target. 

But what about “prime farmland?” About 16.7 million acres are considered “prime farmland” in Minnesota.  If 22 GW of solar, requiring 220,000 acres, were to be sited exclusively on prime farmland, it would still only use 1.32 percent of the land considered “prime.”

As we continue to analyze how farmland is used, it is interesting to note that according to Agricultural Census Data, the number of acres used for agriculture in Minnesota has declined 7 percent between 1997 and 2017, yet yields are on the rise.

In Wisconsin, where over 4,700 MW of solar are in the pipeline, there is a similar story. In 2017, farmers harvested crops on about 825,000 fewer acres than they did in 1982. Yet, yields and total production are increasing. The ample supply of crops is driving prices down, creating a need for farmers to find new ways to diversify their revenue streams. Solar is a great option.  

Solar farming can offer a consistent, drought-resistant source of income for rural farmers and their local economies. In Minnesota, on an average annual basis, there are over twice as many farm acres planted that fail due to flooding, storm damage or blight as would be needed to generate solar energy to meet the 10 percent energy goal. Still, Minnesota can meet its needs and have plenty for other uses such as ethanol, animal feed and exports. 

Anytime infrastructure projects are planned, finding the right place to put them becomes a very important part of the process. There are lots of things to consider. But fear about using the land for solar instead of farming should no longer be a source of concern.  

The bottom line is that solar requires a very small footprint, and there is plenty of land to accommodate our agricultural, recreational and development needs. Growing our solar energy industry is just smart — for the environment and our pocketbooks.


Kelley Welf is communications manager at Clean Grid Alliance.

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