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Opinion | Michigan need not choose between farmland and solar panels

Now that a long-awaited advance in climate legislation has been achieved at the federal level which provides unprecedented funding for green energy, the spotlight moves to the states as “ground zero” for implementation. Yet this transition across the country has become entrapped in a polarized battle over approval of solar and wind farms.

What is the big picture backdrop against which these local battles are playing out? 

 Gary House
Gary Houser is a public interest writer and independent producer of video resources dedicated to raising awareness about the issue of irreversible climate tipping points.

The decibel level of climate science is approaching a deafening roar. The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) representing a full 195 nations recently issued an ominous warning that humanity is perilously close to being too late to act before a tipping point is crossed and a breakdown of life support on the planet begins to spin out of control.  

Its words: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”

It is difficult to be more stark than that. A recent documentary broadcast on PBS provides dramatic illustration of how close we are to that tipping point.

But here is the key question: Might there be a path forward that allows us to break through this polarization and find our way to a win-win that includes the future of our children?

This battle in Michigan is being ratcheted up to a new level. What has been a series of localized clashes has now gone statewide in a drive to launch a ballot measure that would ban all utility scale solar from being deployed on agricultural land. 

Proponents say: “We believe that preserving Michigan’s fertile farmland for food production, biodiversity and rural communities is essential for our future well-being and prosperity. Therefore, we call for a ballot initiative that would prohibit the installation of utility-scale solar on agricultural-zoned land in the state of Michigan.” 

Upon an initial hearing, it might seem that a reasonable point is being made. Everyone needs to eat food, it is of course a fundamental necessity. But a deeper examination reveals that this is a classic instance in which there is not an "either-or" dichotomy but rather an opportunity for a “win-win.” 

It turns out that around the world there is a new approach to solar farms being developed in which both the generation of clean electricity and food production can peacefully coexist on the same land. Beyond that, it is now being discovered that for many crops the yield can even be enhanced.  

This new approach is called “agrivoltaics.” 

"Although a novel concept in the United States, agrivoltaic practices have been employed throughout other parts of the world. The concept … started in Japan which now has more than 1,000 agrivoltaic installations. Germany and France are other leaders … and India and China are starting to adopt the practice as well."

The U.S. is actually lagging behind the rest of the world on this. Here is a description of the amazing benefits offered by agrivoltaics by a research project at the Oregon State University College of Agriculture: 

“Most plants don’t actually need all the sunshine that’s available to them to grow well. Researchers have successfully grown aloe vera, tomatoes, corn and lettuce in the intermittent shade cast by PV panels. Some varieties of lettuce even produce greater yields under PV panels.”

Other crops that do well in partial shade include “alfalfa, arugula, beets, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, chard, garlic, onions, parsley, radish, spinach, sweet potato, turnips, and yams.” 

The cultivation of such crops would actually increase the efficiency and longevity of the solar panels: “The cooling effect of growing plants means solar panels generate more electricity and last longer. And the higher soil moisture levels and cooler temperatures under solar panels mean less water is needed for irrigation.’’

From the Colorado Agrivoltaics Learning Center: “Crops are better protected from high winds and hail, reducing risk of crop destruction.” Plus, an even greater revenue source becomes available:  “Revenues from land leases, electricity sales and ‘solar crop’ marketing strategies can help support farming families.

Three outstanding short videos that convey these benefits are "Agrivoltaics at Jack's Solar Garden," [4 min.]   "Agrivoltaics Has Shocking Benefits" [6 min.],  and "Solar Farm to Table." [6 min.] 

The Colorado Agrivoltaics Learning Center offers an online "virtual tour" of its solar farm facility.  Another brief video shows a research project closer to Michigan at Purdue University in Indiana. 

The ballot measure proponents say they wish to “ensure that land reserved for agriculture is used for its intended purpose.”  These videos present an extremely compelling case for how this can indeed be achieved on land that is also a host for solar panels. Agrivoltaics is opening the door to a paradigm shift that can sweep away the false dichotomy of "solar farms VERSUS agriculture."

For those who follow the severity of the climate crisis and especially the frightening prospect of tipping points, these discoveries are offering a ray of hope.  If we can only look past the rhetoric, sincerely open our collective minds to the new possibilities being revealed, and keep our “eyes on the prize” of protecting our children’s future, there is indeed a path to a win-win for us all.  As a faith-based human being, I will pray that this occurs. 

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