Best practices for agrivoltaics land-use planning and regulations

by Michael Buza, Mike Carberry, Larry Gosselin, Julie Lowe and Richard Rollins

We are in the midst of a global transition to clean energy. In the United States, although not receiving regular coverage in mainstream news, recent federal legislation and incentives are accelerating renewable energy development in every state. In rural areas, agricultural lands are now being eyed for solar development and local governments are being asked to respond. Many are responding positively, planning to embrace agrivoltaics, a growing dual-use application of photovoltaics (PV) which co-locates solar panels with agriculture.

To facilitate and guide development of agrivoltaics, planners across the country are crafting or updating new land-use plans and regulations to optimize the benefits in ways that express community values and meet community needs. Recognizing that most land-use decisions are made locally, a report from Yale summarizes how communities can “simultaneously expand and strengthen solar infrastructure while conserving farmland, generating ecological benefits, and supporting rural places,” thus avoiding the false dichotomy of “food or energy” that frequently arises when PV applications are considered for agricultural land.1

Since large-scale agrivoltaics projects represent a relatively new type of agricultural land use, careful planning is essential to successfully adopt and implement zoning regulations that reflect a community’s vision for its agricultural lands. The American Planning Association (APA) created its Solar@Scale guidebook to help local government planners, politicians and development professionals understand the land-use planning process for large-scale solar.2

Community Engagement and Equity

Creating or updating a comprehensive plan to include provisions for agrivoltaics often begins when the local legislative body adopts a resolution or policy statement to that effect. After which, the real work of articulating the plan’s detailed provisions and the associated zoning regulations falls to the jurisdiction’s planning staff. Successful planners and politicians know that the best outcomes result from early engagement with community stakeholders, which lays the groundwork for equitable and just distribution of impacts and benefits. The APA Solar@Scale guidebook recognizes that the first step in the planning process is to foster authentic public participation. Stakeholder groups will vary by location based on physical, social, and economic context, and will potentially include:

  • Local elected officials and staff
  • Residents and business owners
  • Farmers and large landowners
  • Community service and development organizations
  • Equity and environmental justice organizations
  • Economic development organizations
  • Environmental protection and conservation organizations
  • Utility and transmission authorities
  • Solar industry groups
  • Representatives of neighboring jurisdictions

Regional Best Practices for Design and Construction

In addition to engaging with community stakeholders, most effective planners, jurisdiction staff and legislative bodies also understand the value of being familiar with industry best practices. Best practices for agrivoltaic applications will vary from region to region and with the type of agrivoltaics installed, including PV with crops (row crops, fruits, vegetables, berries, etc.), grazing, beekeeping or native pollinator vegetation. Simply installing PV on agricultural lands is not considered agrivoltaics; at a minimum PV must be co-located with native vegetation or ground cover with a plan for continuous vegetation management.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) Agrivoltaics Primer provides an excellent introduction to low-impact design and construction practices appropriate for agrivoltaic projects.3 These include:

  • Selecting sites to avoid wetlands, riparian areas, endangered species habitat or cultural sites
  • Minimizing grading and soil compaction, particularly on prime agricultural lands
  • Minimizing removal of native plants or selecting appropriate seed mixes for revegetation, including native pollinator-friendly vegetation suitable for the locale or animal forage, if site grazing is anticipated
  • Minimizing and managing invasive weeds during construction
  • Using rammed or driven posts, or ground screws (in lieu of posts embedded in concrete) for support structures
  • Using racking technologies that can accommodate greater tolerances for topography, thus requiring less site grading
  • Minimizing mowing and herbicide use by designing for animal grazing (e.g., elevating wiring and electrical boxes, selecting appropriate seed mixes, etc.)

Other best practices for certain sites or types of agrivoltaics include:

  • Avoiding the installation of perimeter fencing or, where required by code, choosing wildlife-friendly fencing to allow small animals to move through the site
  • Spacing or configuring arrays to provide “corridors” for larger wildlife or grazers
  • Orientating arrays to avoid glare near airports
  • Minimizing noise and dust during construction
  • Managing stormwater runoff during and after construction
  • Including setbacks and vegetative screening to minimize visual impacts

Policy Approaches to Dual-use Agrivoltaics

An understanding of community stakeholder priorities and industry best practice provides a sound foundation for planning documents and land-use regulations that guide development of agrivoltaic projects. Typically, solar energy developers value such guiding documents because they can reduce risk of disputes and extended delays resulting from incompatible siting decisions and possible litigation. Farmers and landowners similarly see value in knowing where and how to increase income from agricultural lands, while at the same time stewarding those lands for ongoing or future food or crop production. Some communities may favor integration of agrivoltaic land uses with other related uses, including regional trail systems in setback areas, community gardens, local farm-to-fork agro-economy enhancement, or corridors for pollinators and other wildlife. Use of existing transmission and distribution infrastructure should be prioritized.

To guide policy and regulation development, numerous organizations have prepared guides that identify essential content, issues that should be addressed, and model legislation. These include NREL’s 5Cs of Agrivoltaic Success; the Policy Approaches for Dual-use and AgriSolar Practices by the Center for Rural Affairs; the Local Government Solar Toolkit published by the Great Plains Institute; the Agrisolar Policy Guide by the AgriSolar Clearinghouse and the State Pollinator-friendly Solar Initiatives prepared by the Clean Energy States Alliance, to name a few. The Great Plains Institute in particular has published model land-use ordinances, including dual-use applications for solar on agricultural land for Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

While not exhaustive, the following are important considerations to address in policy and land-use regulations in order to avoid ambiguity and facilitate desired dual-use agrivoltaic projects on agricultural lands:

  • Tax incentives – Incentives are common and can be provided by state or county jurisdictions.
  • Definitions – Important to reduce ambiguity. Agrivoltaics are not a “one size fits all” technology. Does “agrivoltaics” mean that continued agricultural production is required or expected? If yes, how is agricultural production defined?
  • Specifying permissible uses – What ancillary facilities are permitted? Battery storage? Substations? Maintenance buildings?
  • Area limitations or requirements – Are small PV installations permitted by right? If so, what is the maximum size permitted by right? Is there a maximum combined area for the county? For the lands within a subarea plan?
  • Site and Array configurations – Height restrictions? Setbacks? Visual screens? Site land coverage limitations?
  • Prime soils preservation – Are certain lands excluded or preferred as sites for agrivoltaics? What is the standard used?
  • Required construction and operation and maintenance best practices – Stormwater management? Repair of damaged field tile drainage systems? Pesticide use? Grading? Topsoil preservation? Vegetation planting/restoration schedule? Monitoring or reporting requirements?
  • Agricultural management plans – Vegetation or crop management plan? Grazing plan and schedules? Monitoring or reporting requirements?
  • Decommissioning and Restoration – Waste removal? Waste recycling? Bonding required

Misinformation and Poison Pills

We tend to be circumspect, often afraid of what we don’t know. In times of stress or rapid change, fear can be a barrier to rational responses and beneficial developments. This is certainly true for the introduction of agrivoltaics to many agricultural communities. Fear and lack of knowledge can lead to misinformation and “poison pill” policies, both of which can get in the way of informed, rational responses to both real risks and beneficial opportunities.

Confronting the impacts of a warming world will require adaptation for all of us, including farmers who must confront more or less rainfall, flooding or drought, changes to growing-season length, new pests, and more frequent extreme storm events. Farmland stewardship and agricultural production has always been a risky business, and the cost of change is real. However, long-term solar land leases, adding as much as $1,000 or more per acre annual income to the land owner, can facilitate positive change and reduce risks.

To counter misinformation and reduce the negative impacts of reactive fear, early community engagement can focus on sharing actual case studies and research results from trusted organizations and federal agencies. Combining such technical information with more personable and anecdotal success stories and “lessons learned” told by farmers speaking to other farmers can be very helpful in guiding a community to positive reception of agrivoltaics.

Agrivoltaics – A Transformational Opportunity

It is increasingly difficult to refute that human society is entering a period of escalating extremes, from heat domes to polar vortexes, floods to droughts, and rising sea levels to scorching wildfires, to name a few.  There is a growing consensus on the need to rapidly transition to clean energy sources, putting unprecedented pressure for transformational change on the nation’s agricultural lands.

As indicated in our previous agrivoltaics article, ongoing research is identifying and refining best practices and confirming the beneficial potential of dual-use solar on agricultural lands.4 Since this brief article only begins to convey the full nuance and potential of agrivoltaics, an additional Agrivoltaics Resources document has been prepared for those working on local policy or wishing to better understand this novel, double-duty climate solution that yields benefits to farmers and their communities.5

Agrivoltaics, thoughtfully planned and carefully implemented, can help usher in the clean energy transition that the world so direly needs.

If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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