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Developing Utility-Scale Solar Power in Michigan at the Agriculture-Energy Nexus

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.