Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: The Impact on Maine Agriculture

     Maine is 13 percent farmland. The rest is heavily forested or rocky coastline. The state recently set sights on clean energy by 2030. Solar development has gathered steam as a means for phasing out fossil fuels. But at what cost?

     Solar power requires a large, open land base. This makes farmland a prime target. Some farmers find appeal in the passive income and reduced energy costs promised by solar. Others consider solar with caution.

Solar Panels on a Sunny Day in Maine. Photo courtesy of ReVision Energy.

     The term “agrivoltaics” is the practice of using land for solar and crops or grazing at the same time. Jeremy Payne is the executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. He held a position on the solar stakeholder group. The stakeholder group sited solar projects that protected and aligned with farming. He said, “Striking that balance between solar growth and traditional farming is an important one to get right.”

     Teresa and Henry Hardy operate a multi-generational organic dairy farm in Farmington, Maine. They received letters in the mail about solar energy contracts. Every agricultural fair they attended had more developers present. The demand for farmland is in as solar projects dot the horizon.

     Hardy said, “The panels aren’t built or installed with green energy. We are told you can graze the ground under the panels. However, I don’t see quality land left. And trimming the weeds and unwanted plants from around those panels is no walk in the park.”

Solar Grazing in the Summer Sunshine. Image courtesy of Crescent Run Farm.

     While Maine seeks clean energy, farmers decide the best course of action. Hardy said, “To me, there is a double-edged sword. What will happen after the contracts are up with this useless land? It will not be good to grow crops. It will take years to get this land back to what it was.” Solar projects may offset energy costs. They may provide passive income. But what happens to the land and the material waste?

     Payne said, “Every single energy source has an environmental impact of some sort. But it is undeniable that renewables have far less of a footprint than fossil fuels. I do believe we will see more efforts take hold in the coming years. Things like solar panel recycling.” 

     Maine has enabled solar projects across the state to meet renewable energy goals. Balancing energy with agriculture remains an ongoing process.