Solar Fields in Place of Cornfields: A Win-Win if There Ever Was One by Doug Boucher


In a recent article in the Bay Journal, the Chesapeake’s monthly environmental newspaper, senior writer Timothy B. Wheeler speculated that that the growth of large-scale solar collection fields on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, at the expense of cornfields, might have “unforeseen consequences on land use, local economies, wildlife habitat and maybe even water quality.” (“Solar Power’s New Look: More Landscape-Friendly Siting,” April 2018.)

In fact, we have enough scientific knowledge to foresee quite a few of those consequences — and they would be positive ones. For example: Cornfields are dominated by a single crop species, while the vegetation under solar fields is much more varied (native grasses, goldenrod, etc.) and thus more biodiverse. Because of these differences, the vegetation under and between solar panels provides much better habitat for wildlife — particularly for early-successional bird species, whose populations have been declining at alarming rates.

Similarly, solar fields provide much better resources than cornfields for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.

Cornfields are annual row crops and, of course, farmers try to keep the growth of weeds between those rows to a minimum. This means that they have considerable amounts of bare ground and thus substantial losses of soil to erosion, together with the runoff of the nutrients that spur eutrophication, a major cause of the Bay’s dead zones.

On the other hand, the meadow vegetation under solar fields is perennial, not annual, and thus provides year-round cover. So it reduces erosion and nutrient runoff significantly. This is true even compared to well-managed row crop rotations using no-till management and winter cover crops.

Unlike cornfields, solar fields don’t require the use of insecticides, fungicides, tillage or irrigation. Nor do they require fertilizer, whether synthetically or from manure, both of which lead to water pollution.

Solar fields provide substantially more revenue to rural landowners, with much lower costs as well as less risk. The income they generate is dependable over the long term because typical solar leases are for periods of 20 years or more.

This makes it possible for farmers to keep their land instead of having to sell it in the face of suburban sprawl. Moreover, the benefits of converting cornfields to solar reach far beyond the farm. By reducing global warming, they slow down the rising sea levels and extreme storms that threaten communities along the Bay and far beyond.

They also cut down on the air pollution from coal-fired electric power plants, gasoline-burning cars and natural-gas-heated offices. In this way they reduce one of the most important threats plaguing public health, manifested in such illnesses as asthma, toxic chemicals such as mercury, and smog.

Like a cornfield, a solar farm uses land and the sun’s energy to produce something that people vitally need. But it does it with a much more positive impact on the environment — locally, across the Bay’s watershed and around the world.

And, just as important, it makes possible the transition to an economy powered by 100 percent renewable energy — the critical environmental need of the 21st century.

Ecologist Doug Boucher is with the Climate and Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal or the Spy. 


Letters to Editor

  1. Emily Massey says:

    There is no need to tell science to Kent county. I tried to have solar and it was the most frustrating experience. If They change their position now ,They will hear from me.

  2. Frances Reed says:

    Does the writer of this article honestly believe that the solar companies will allow any kind of growth around their solar panels? Just look at the picture that accompanies the article – absolutely bare ground! I think the solar agencies probably put down all kinds of weed/grass killers to make sure they have no maintenance other than what might be occasionally required for their equipment. I hope I’m wrong because it would be wonderful if the Utopia described in the article were possible.

  3. J. Michael Kramer says:

    Some good points there. But I’d like to know what are the downsides to solar fields? Yesterday I drove by a several hundred acre solar field outside of the Indianapolis airport and IMHO it’s not aesthetically pleasing. It’s industrial not rural. I’d much rather cornfields. Also, what will they look like in 20 years? Will they be well maintained and still bright and shiny? Another point is herbicides. How will they keep the weeds under the panels from becoming a problem. Mowing between the panels seems logical but underneath I suspect not. I am sure a net reduction of herbicides but they’ll still be needed.

    Bottom line: we need a well considered examination of pros and cons and perhaps some zoning before a massive permanent change to our lovely rural landscape.

  4. Crops in the Ground; Solar Panels on the Roof

    A recent column on farm fields to solar energy production makes it clear that the author, Mr. Boucher, has little understanding of farming nor does he appreciate the fundamentals of where his food comes from. American Farmland Trust, in their latest report Farms Under Threat, has identified all farmland losses and the very small percentage of land that qualifies as important high value soils in the U.S. These cumulative losses are a matter of concern for the resiliency of the food supply and national food security. High value soils, the report points out, have dropped by 3% (11 Million Acres) in one generation to only 17% of all the land in the continental US.. While urban sprawl and other housing development play a major role in the reduction of this most productive soil, farmland far from the pressures of housing development is being lost to energy sprawl. Thousands of acres of farmland now and into the future are being covered to produce intermittent power from solar panels. Willy-Nilly farmland conversion orchestrated by energy developers is not a wise farmland protection policy.

    Solar development speculators, like the door to door insurance agents of yesterday, have swarmed all over Delmarva filling in-boxes and mailboxes of farmers and landowners with lease offers. Removal of these acres causes agricultural jobs to be lost, impacts efficiencies, and has cumulative impacts that hurt the smallest farming operations first, like young farmers, but threatens the direct, indirect and induced sectors of the whole agricultural economy.

    Farms are businesses that cannot be competitive by bearing the cost of wasting soil and nutrition to runoff. What might have been true of farming practices in the past—soil erosion and nutrient run off—rarely occur today. Maryland is on the cutting edge of those advanced farming techniques using no till methods, cover crops, and other conservation practices that have largely eliminated erosion while also widely adopting GPS satellite technology allowing precise nutrient placement to meet crop needs and prevent runoff. Farming evolves as new farming practices are introduced. Removing farmland in Maryland exports it to locations that have less concern for environmental farming techniques and where farmland is created by clearing forests.

    Utility scale solar energy generation on farmland aspires to be biodiverse providing a weed and pesticide free environment. My own experience of management of wildlife habitat on our organic farm is that it requires a multitude of tools including mowing, herbicides and burning to keep noxious weeds like Johnson Grass, Canada thistle, and Pigweed from out-competing native grasses and pollinators.

    Certainly, deploy solar panels on land we have already used; grey-fields, rooftops, capped land-fills and brownfield. However, worshiping at the altar of Mr. Boucher’s 100 % renewable energy solution to climate change, by consuming valuable farmland is misplaced. There is no long-term or cost effect storage capacity available (nor currently foreseeable) to make renewables continuously available on a scale necessary to totally rely on for our electricity demands. Thus, to keep the lights on today, renewables require a duplicate carbon-copy of dispatchable generation-fossil fuels.

    The conversation we and concerned scientists should be having instead is how we reach 100% zero-carbon energy production whether renewable or not. Reframing our focus onto the problem, CO2. Today the highest fraction of energy from a carbon free source is nuclear with a high capacity factor and substantially lower land requirement relative to other carbon-free generators. Building the right mix of carbon free energy and sparing our farmland requires that we expand and continue support of energy research and development and that we are commited to a federal policy that will protect our farmland.

    In the meantime, let’s not bet our farms on solar.

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