Across the U.S., many cities, counties, and states are taking advantage of affordable renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy. Over the past nine years, the price of installing solar energy projects has decreased by 70 percent, while the average cost of constructing a wind energy project has fallen by more than 67 percent per kilowatt hour since 1983.1,2 This rapid decline in cost has empowered Americans to embrace affordable, clean, and renewable energy. While all investments in conservation promote environmental improvement, developers can follow a few best practices to ensure project success. For example, native seed mixes offer the greatest return on investment when aiming to provide ecosystem services, such as habitat for pollinators and wildlife, as well as improved water quality and soil health. If possible, project developers should prioritize native seed selections over naturalized, non-invasive species of vegetation. Pollinators play a critical role in the robust food, fuel, and fiber production economy of the Midwest. By pollinating agricultural crops, this group of insects is crucial to ensuring economic and food security. Research shows the populations of all pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, and monarch butterflies, were three-and-a-half times greater on sites with investments in the reestablishment of native vegetation in central Iowa when compared to control sites. Seeding a site with native and naturalized, non-invasive vegetation presents opportunities for the introduction of livestock grazing for management. For example, pollinator-friendly solar sites have seen success with rotational grazing of sheep as a management option. Sheep are recommended for pollinator-friendly solar projects because goats and cattle could cause damage to on-site equipment. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are growing rapidly. As the industry continues to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, stimulate local and state tax revenue, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, new investments in electric transmission infrastructure will inevitably occur. By developing resources for site managers of renewable energy infrastructure, public officials at all levels are well positioned to add value to these projects. Investments in native and naturalized, non-invasive vegetation ensure habitat for at-risk pollinators, including the monarch butterfly, while creating habitat for vulnerable wildlife species. These species are crucial for economic and food security in the Midwest and underwriting renewable energy projects with perennial vegetation improves quality of life for all.

This publication reviews planning the use of land for large-scale utility solar energy.

Wind and solar farms offer a major pathway to clean, renewable energies. However, these farms would significantly change land surface properties, and, if sufficiently large, the farms may lead to unintended climate consequences. In this study, we used a climate model with dynamic vegetation to show that large-scale installations of wind and solar farms covering the Sahara lead to a local temperature increase and more than a twofold precipitation increase, especially in the Sahel, through increased surface friction and reduced albedo. The resulting increase in vegetation further enhances precipitation, creating a positive albedo–precipitation– vegetation feedback that contributes ~80% of the precipitation increase for wind farms. This local enhancement is scale dependent and is particular to the Sahara, with small impacts in other deserts. Efforts to build such large-scale wind and solar farms for electricity generation may still face many technological (e.g., transmission, efficiency), socioeconomic (e.g., cost, politics), and environmental challenges, but this goal has become increasingly achievable and cost-effective. These results indicate that renewable energy can have multiple benefits for climate and sustainable development and thus could be widely adopted as a primary solution to the challenges of global energy, climate change, and environmental and societal sustainability.

Utility-scale solar development has expanded rapidly across the U.S. in recent years, driven by declining costs and improving technology. The most recent Lazard levelized cost of energy (LCOE) analysis shows utility-scale solar now equivalent to or below the cost of conventional generation, with a price range of $36-44 per megawatt-hour (MWh). Thirty-two gigawatts (GW) of utility-scale solar have been installed in the United States to date, and another 50 GW are planned or in development. By 2030, the Department of Energy SunShot program estimates that solar development will encompass between 1 to 3 million acres of land. As the geographic footprint of solar increases beyond the arid southwestern United States, so too has interest in the land use under the panels. In these new geographies, including the Midwest and Northeast, solar is often sited on agricultural land. The ideal tract of land for solar development is flat, dry, unshaded, and close to transmission and load. All of these characteristics are associated with farmland, raising possible tensions between solar and farming as competing land uses. For the most part, solar developers plant shallow-rooted turfgrass or spread gravel under panels, rendering that land unproductive aside from the generation of electricity. However, the co-location of solar projects and innovative vegetation management plans offers the potential to ameliorate this potential land use conflict. Improving the “landscape compatibility” of utility-scale solar has become a topic of great interest in the energy, land use and agricultural research communities. Examples of co-location include growing crops underneath solar trackers; grazing cattle or sheep among elevated solar panels that also provide shade for the livestock; and installing solar in the non-irrigated corners of center-pivot irrigation plots. These approaches can be grouped under the recently coined umbrella term “agrivoltaics.” The researchers developed an Excel-based modelling tool to understand the tradeoffs, costs and benefits between maintaining land as conventional farmland or converting a portion of it to either a conventional solar facility or a pollinator-friendly solar facility. The model accounts for spatial, economic and environmental differences across three counties in South-central Minnesota: Fillmore, Hennepin and Rock. The model is designed as a cash-flow project finance model that incorporates monetized environmental and social costs and benefits. As project finance is the predominant method for financing solar projects in the United States, and a large proportion of a project’s financial return is delivered through preferred tax status and tax credits, they modeled both pre- and post-tax cash flows from the solar projects. Their model also includes a cash-flow operating model for a conventional soy or corn farm. For all land uses, the model incorporates the monetized value of environmental externalities, including carbon emissions, soil erosion and groundwater recharge. Not all externalities and ecosystem services were modeled, due to data limitations and difficulties in quantifying benefits such as habitat creation and biodiversity. We created multiple scenarios within the model to analyze differences in private and social value streams across counties, crop type, and a range of upside and downside inputs. The model outputs are a series of cost-benefit analyses comparing the three main land uses — pollinator-friendly solar, conventional solar, and farming. The financial return of each use varies by crop type, location and upside/downside scenarios. Solar development in Minnesota and across the Midwest is poised to continue on land traditionally devoted to conventional agriculture. Growing interest in low-impact solar development and co-location of solar projects with pollinator-friendly plants represents an opportunity to mitigate energy-versus-food tensions and provide additional benefits to agriculture, ecosystems, and private developers alike. The model presented in this paper takes an important step towards quantifying and monetizing the benefits of pollinator-friendly solar development as a land use option in Minnesota. Understanding the full monetary value of pollinator-friendly solar is necessary to design policies that efficiently and effectively support its development in locations that optimize project value. As the practice continues to gain popularity, there is a pressing need for additional research that clarifies the value of ecosystem services created by this innovative land use. Improved understanding of the diverse social and private benefits of pollinator-friendly solar will allow for strategic deployment of these projects — and will maximize returns for all stakeholders.

This playbook is an introductory guide for local governments to facilitate large-scale solar projects in Southwest Virginia. In a region that has a long history of energy production, solar technologies offer enormous potential for economic development and job growth. Large-scale solar can take many forms, including rooftop or ground-mounted installations at local corporate offices, nonprofit organizations, or schools. It can also encompass utility-scale projects over many acres on former agricultural or timberlands, mined lands, or industrial sites. Regardless of the type of project, solar is a widely popular, cost-competitive energy choice that helps create sustainable and prosperous communities. This playbook is directed to municipal and county governments that have an essential role to play in encouraging large-scale solar projects. The first section provides an overview of state and national trends, including recent state legislation that will impact local oversight of solar development. This is followed by an overview of the solar project approval process from a developer’s perspective. The next section is an overview of the state and local permitting process for solar projects, followed by other development considerations such as local tax revenue options, financing incentives, and considerations for solar on brownfields and previously mined lands. The playbook concludes with a step-by-step guide for local governments to facilitate large-scale solar development. This playbook is part of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia’s effort to bring solar energy and associated jobs to the region. Over the past few years, the workgroup has met with stakeholder groups and crafted a strategy for local solar energy development. The workgroup has collaborated with cities and counties to bring SolSmart designation to eight counties and cities, implemented group purchase campaigns for commercial solar, and led research efforts.

Renewable energy is a promising alternative to fossil fuel based energy, but its development can require a complex set of environmental tradeoffs. A recent increase in solar energy systems, especially large, centralized installations, underscores the urgency of understanding their environmental interactions. Synthesizing literature across numerous disciplines, the researchers review direct and indirect environmental impacts both beneficial and adverse of utility scale solar energy (USSE) development, including impacts on biodiversity, land use and land cover change, soils, water resources, and human health. Additionally, they review feedbacks between USSE infrastructure and land atmosphere interactions and the potential for USSE systems to mitigate climate change. Several characteristics and development strategies of USSE systems have low environmental impacts relative to other energy systems, including other renewables. We show opportunities to increase USSE environmental co benefits, the permitting and regulatory constraints and opportunities of USSE, and highlight future research directions to better understand the nexus between USSE and the environment. Increasing the environmental compatibility of USSE systems will maximize the efficacy of this key renewable energy source in mitigating climatic and global environmental change. Utility scale solar energy systems are on the rise worldwide, an expansion fueled by technological advances, policy changes, and the urgent need to reduce both our dependence on carbon intensive sources of energy and the emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Recently, a growing interest among scientists, solar energy developers, land managers, and policy makers to understand the environmental impacts both beneficial and adverse of USSE, from local to global scales, has engendered novel research and findings. This review synthesizes this body of knowledge, which conceptually spans numerous disciplines and crosses multiple interdisciplinary boundaries. The disadvantageous environmental impacts of USSE have not heretofore been carefully evaluated nor weighted against the numerous environmental benefits particularly in mitigating climate change and co benefits that solar energy systems offer. Indeed, several characteristics and development strategies of USSE systems have low environmental impacts relative to other energy systems, including other renewable energy technologies. Major challenges to the widespread deployment of USSE installations remain in technology, research, and policy. Overcoming such challenges, high lighted in the previous sections, will require multidisciplinary approaches, perspectives, and collaborations. This review serves to induce communication across relatively disparate disciplines but intentional and structured coordination will be required to further advance the state of knowledge and maximize the environmental benefits of solar energy systems at the utility scale.

The avenues by which Michigan and the United States provide the electricity essential for the economy and quality of life are in urgent need of change to ensure reliability and affordability while reducing the environmental impacts of this generation and improving social equity. These energy transitions are among the greatest challenges facing countries worldwide today. Another salient global challenge is reversing the decline in pollinators, including numerous species of native bees, honey bees, butterflies and birds. Pollinators provide critical ecosystem services but are facing numerous threats. These two grand challenges intersect as stakeholders work to identify the appropriate landscapes and places to develop solar power in Michigan. Agricultural land is desirable for solar installations for reasons that will be explained in this report. The state of Michigan is allowing solar developers to locate, or “site,” solar panels on preserved farmland but only if they develop habitat on this land to support pollinators. Other states are developing or have already developed standards developers must meet before they can advertise solar power plants as pollinator friendly. This intertwines these two urgent challenges in ways that are laudable; however, numerous questions of feasibility and best practices for achieving quality habitat remain unanswered. Multiple types of expertise and experiences from stakeholders from both energy and agricultural domains are required to successfully address these two challenges. In order to effect change, these stakeholders should collaborate more closely to overcome challenges of interpretation, problem definition and costs. This report identifies and characterizes those issues to facilitate stakeholders’ development of more optimal solutions. Overall, we identified several different paradigms through which stakeholders in Michigan viewed the appropriateness of solar power development on farmland. Some stakeholders viewed solar siting as a decision that should be left to an individual landowner because they have private property rights. Moreover, solar leasing would help to diversify farmers’ incomes, reducing the risks from seasonal and price volatility. Some stakeholders even saw solar leasing as part of farmland preservation, as it could enable a struggling farming operation to stay in business and a farmer to continue to own the land leased for solar rather than selling it for housing development. Other stakeholders saw farmland as a public good and opposed using prime farmland for solar power generation. These stakeholders often assumed that solar power could be targeted specifically toward low-quality agricultural land, or urban rooftops and brownfields rather than agricultural lands. For these stakeholders, inclusion of pollinator habitat and other multi-land uses tended to improve their opinion of solar power.

Threats to pollinators may have profound consequences for ecosystem health as well as our food systems. Concerns about pollinator declines and associated repercussions have led to increased efforts by non-governmental organizations and both public and private sectors to reduce threats to pollinators. One of the most iconic pollinator species, the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus), is recognized and celebrated by people throughout North America; the butterfly’s annual migration stretches from southern Canada to Mexico, covering most of the lower 48 United States during the spring and summer. But monarchs are in trouble. The overwintering population in central Mexico has declined by ~80% since the 1990s. The overwintering population in coastal California has declined by 97% since the 1980s and, in winter of 2018–2019, the population crashed to a mere 0.6% of its historic size. Threatened by habitat loss, insecticides and herbicides, climate change, and other stressors, the species is now being considered for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Contributions to species conservation efforts can therefore be investments toward helping a species rebound and averting a listing. Electric power companies have an opportunity to play a part in the monarch’s recovery. They own and/or manage a substantial amount of land and associated natural resources across North America, including transmission and distribution rights-of-way (ROW), solar fields, wind fields, buffer areas surrounding power plants and substations, and “surplus” land holdings. These acres hold the potential to create a network of habitat to support monarchs and other pollinators across their breeding range. Together, power companies have an opportunity to make a difference by considering the needs of these important animals when managing habitat and revegetating land.

This guide has been developed to share knowledge and learnings from agrisolar practices around Australia and the world, to assist proponents of utility-scale solar, and the landholders and farmers who work with them, to integrate agricultural activities into solar farm projects. As solar grazing is the dominant form of agrisolar for utility-scale solar, this guide has a strong focus on sharing the knowledge and learnings from Australian projects that have integrated solar grazing practices to date, providing case studies from solar farms currently employing solar grazing, information on the benefits of solar grazing for proponents and farmers, and practical guidance for both farmers and proponents considering solar grazing. A further aim is to contribute to the local knowledge of trends and research from international markets about a broader range of agrisolar models which could be considered for the Australian context. With the deployment of large utility-scale solar farms commencing in Australia from around 2015 onwards, the local experience of agrisolar practices is still developing and currently dominated by the practice of sheep grazing on solar farms. The first known Australian solar farm to implement agrisolar practice was the Royalla Solar Farm which began grazing sheep in 2015. Since then, there have been over a dozen solar farms that have introduced grazing, and it has proved to be an effective partnership for both solar farm proponents and graziers. ‘Solar grazing’, as it is known, is the most prevalent form of complementary land use for utility-scale solar farms. At present, where other forms of agrisolar are being pursued in horticulture, viticulture, aquaculture and cropping, it is typically at a much smaller (ie. nonutility) scale.