Stakeholder Group Recommendations for Creating Balanced Solar Energy Development

Stakeholder Group Recommendations for Creating Balanced Solar Energy Development

February 1, 2022


Henry Trotter

MFT supports renewable energy production on farms as long as it does not significantly diminish the potential for agricultural production.

On-site energy production can support the economic viability of a farm operation, reduce energy costs, and is important for addressing climate change. However, solar development in the state should not result in the loss of important agricultural lands or impede the ability of farmers to access the land base needed for their agricultural operations. Solar generation and agriculture can co-exist in Maine in a mutually beneficial manner as long as solar siting is structured to ensure the appropriate balance of these important interests. You can find a copy of MFT’s solar siting guidelines HERE.

The Agricultural Solar Siting Stakeholder Group was created by LD 820 and convened by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF) and the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) to develop consensus recommendations to incentivize the siting of solar energy projects so as to minimize impacts on important agricultural lands. Ellen Griswold from MFT participated in the Stakeholder Group along with farmers, other agriculture support organizations, solar developers, a representative from the Maine Renewable Energy Association, and municipal representatives. The Stakeholder Group met from June through December of 2021, and released its final report on January 20, 2022. DACF provided a report of its evaluation of those recommendations to the Legislature on the same day.

The Stakeholder Group was able to reach consensus on a number of recommendations that will be very important for helping to ensure that solar energy is developed in a way that minimizes impacts to important agricultural resources.

  • Support for the Development of Dual-Use Projects: the Stakeholder Group made two recommendations that would support the development of more dual-use projects so that we can better understand the financial costs associated with them and investigate the best ways to support agricultural production as part of these projects. Dual-use projects are solar installations on farmland that allow for primary agricultural activities (such as animal grazing and crop/vegetable production) to be maintained simultaneously on the farmland.
  • Dual-Use Pilot Project: the Stakeholder Group recommended that DACF and GEO design a pilot program to reserve at least 20 MW of capacity for dual-use projects to support the growth of this type of production in Maine.
  • Removal of the current use taxation withdrawal penalty: the Stakeholder Group recommended removing the withdrawal penalty for dual-use projects on land enrolled in the farmland current use taxation, as long as the current use taxation requirements are still being met. This is a great way to incentivize the development of dual-use projects because developers would not have to pay the withdrawal fee.
  • Permit-by-Rule Criteria: the Stakeholder Group recommended including dual-use and/or co-location criteria in the future development of a permit-by-rule process. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is undertaking a rulemaking to allow projects up to 50 acres in size that meet certain siting criteria to obtain a permit by rule, as opposed to going through the traditional permitting process. In its evaluation, DACF recommended that the proposed criteria be expanded to also include the use of marginal agricultural lands as well as previously-developed or degraded lands, and MFT supports these additions. Including these criteria in a permit-by-rule process would be a great way of creating more regulatory efficiency for well-sited solar projects, thereby incentivizing solar developers to site projects on marginal or degraded lands or to integrate agricultural activities with the solar arrays.
  • Information Clearinghouse: the Stakeholder Group recommended creating a publicly-accessible database of key characteristics of approved and constructed renewable energy projects, including solar projects, so that agricultural and natural resource impact trends can be identified. This type of information is not currently publicly available.
  • Municipal technical assistance: the Stakeholder Group recommended providing more technical assistance to municipalities so that they have the information and resources they need to carefully consider siting considerations in their permitting and approval processes for solar projects.

The Stakeholder Group indicated the importance of exploring in the future other policy tools to discourage the siting on land of higher agricultural value and encourage projects that integrate agricultural production or use more marginal lands.

  • Consideration of site characteristics in renewable energy programs: the Stakeholder Group signaled the importance of exploring ways of considering the siting of solar projects in different renewable energy programs. This could include the consideration of the agricultural and natural resource impacts of a proposed project in the selection process when the Public Utilities Commission is directed to procure additional solar projects. Alternatively, if a tariff program is developed for renewable energy projects, it could take the form of including a financial incentive for certain types of projects like dual-use or co-location projects or projects that use previously developed or disturbed lands. Providing either additional scoring points or financial incentives for well-designed and sited projects would be an effective way of guiding development in that direction. The Stakeholder Group determined that another stakeholder group currently underway – the Distributed Generation Stakeholder Group, established in 2021 by LD 936 and convened by the GEO – is the appropriate venue for considering the incorporation of site characteristics into these processes, but the Group made clear that agricultural stakeholders must be at the table for these discussions.
  • In-lieu fee/mitigation fee: the Stakeholder Group explored the policy idea of charging a developer a mitigation fee that goes into a fund to support the protection of other important agricultural resources if impacts cannot be avoided. Versions of this type of program already exist in Maine for other natural resources, and New York has just embarked on a similar program that includes fees related to agricultural resource impacts. The Group could only reach consensus to continue to monitor the development of the New York program and analyze its applicability for Maine.

MFT will be working with legislators, partners, farmers and agency officials to advance several of the recommendations coming out of the Stakeholder Group, including creating greater regulatory efficiency for well-sited solar projects through the permit-by-rule process; supporting the development of dual-use solar projects that integrate primary agricultural activities; creating a centralized database of information related to approved and constructed projects; and providing more technical assistance to municipalities as they work to evaluate solar projects. We will also continue to engage in efforts to ensure that impacts to important agricultural and natural resources are considered and that well-sited projects are given a leg up in renewable energy programs.

We depend on our members and supporters to lift up the importance of these issues to legislators and other government officials. You can get involved and advocate for Maine farms by signing up to receive policy updates and action alerts here.

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