Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opens up more Michigan farmland to solar power

Landowners enrolled in Michigan’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation program — which offers tax credits to those who keep land under contract for agricultural use for decades — may now put commercial solar panels on their land under certain conditions, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced.

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a policy change Monday that would allow solar energy development on up to 3.4 million acres of farmland.

Landowners in Michigan’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation program — which offers tax credits to those who keep land under contract for agricultural use for decades — may now put commercial solar panels on their land under certain conditions, Whitmer announced.

The move reverses a 2017 decision under then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, that barred solar power development in the preservation program, which covers about one-third of the state’s 10 million acres of farmland.

“My administration understands and is committed to helping meet the growing demand for clean, renewable energy sources in our state,” Whitmer, a Democrat, said in a statement. “By preparing for and investing in renewable energy, we're protecting our environment while diversifying revenue options for Michigan farmers and supporting economic development and job creation in a key Michigan industry."

Solar energy advocates had called the 2017 decision a barrier to development, saying it was hard to find land that wasn’t preserved under the program. The previous policy said land covered with commercial solar panels was “not considered agricultural, and therefore, the land would need to be removed from the program prior to the construction of such a facility.”

Supporters of the 2017 policy were concerned that opening such land to solar developers would take fertile lands out of crop production. But experts have pointed to some ways farmers can simultanously generate energy and keep their land productive for agriculture. If solar panels are elevated, for instance, farmers can still keep their land open for grazing. 

Monday’s reversal came after Whitmer convened a workgroup chaired by Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the agency administering the preservation program.

The new policy allows for solar panels on preserved farmland if the land is necessary to complete a larger commercial solar farm.

Farmers could not claim tax credits while using their land for solar power, but their preservation agreements could resume once their contracts with solar power developers ran out. At that point, the land would still be available for farming, state officials say. Landowners who take advantage of the new policy must plant cover crops — include polinator habitats — beneath the solar panels to reduce erosion and keep soil fertile.

The policy also allows solar panels for personal use as long as they are “consistent with the farming operation.”

“This administrative decision will not result in a loss of usable farmland,” McDowell said in a statement. “The change ensures that Michigan’s farmland is preserved so we can continue to feed our communities while also balancing the need to develop renewable energy sources.”

Farmers eyeing commercial solar panels could previously exit the preservation program under certain conditions. But in most cases, that involved paying back the previous seven years of tax credits plus 6 percent interest, Midwest Energy News reported.

The Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, a trade group representing the state’s “advanced energy” businesses, called the move a “win for farmers, clean energy and the state.”

“Farmers will have access to a new revenue stream, while continuing to preserve their farmland for future agricultural use,” Laura Sherman, the group’s president, said in a statement.

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Barry Visel
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:13am

Wouldn’t more grazing lead to more methane gas which is bad for the atmosphere?

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 10:06am

As much as Solar and Wind sound attractive, what happens on a cloudy, no-wind day after the coal, natural gas and nuclear plants are gone? The power companies seem to be going in that direction.
Solar and wind in theory work. But as we put more eggs in that basket, are we going to have trouble on the cloudy, no-wind 95 degree days? I am not an engineer, but I do have some concerns on where this is all going.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 11:25am

Or at night? What is the environmental impact of manufacturing PV panels? Seems few want to bring this up. Other questions ... Why is it that people who would go nuts looking at oil rigs have no problem looking at wind turbines or PV farms? Why do we need to sue an oil company into oblivion if a duck gets oil on it. But absolutely nothing if an eagle gets chopped by a wind turbine?

Dr Kurt
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 5:15pm

I hear this argument against using wind and solar power generators often. I'm confused why the idea of using storage devices (eg "batteries") isn't obvious? Also, carbon-emitting electrical generators can still sit on "standby" until needed.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 7:54pm

Because short of the Ludington storage, they do not exist and nor is anything even remotely close to coming into fruition for doing what you need to provide power on this scale? And nor to generators sit on sand-by as you posit.

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 8:39am

The "idea" of batteries may be obvious. The "cost" of batteries sufficient to cover power demand, even for just one farm, over several snowy winter days is prohibitive. Right now, the Michigan Public Service Commission is encouraging renewable power generators to treat the utilities' power distribution grid as a free giant battery. Your own comment that "carbon-emitting electrical generators can still sit on "standby" until needed" is evidence that you think that way too.

The majority of our existing power generation plants cannot sit on "standby". They were not designed for intermittent operation, they take several hours to ramp up and ramp down, and they are not cost-competitive when operated on an intermittent basis. DTE was recently permitted to build a new natural gas "peaker" plant that would more effectively balance the intermittent power provided by wind and solar power generation, and allow them to close more coal-burning plants earlier. But many environmentalists have been protesting that decision, and trying to get Gov. Whitmer to reverse it. However, the cost of an all-renewable power system in Michigan, with our overcast winter weather, would be substantially greater than one that uses dispatchable natural gas generation to fill in the gaps in the availability of renewable energy throughout the midwest.

Sun, 06/23/2019 - 12:01pm

Solar works on cloudy days. We have only a few panels on our barn. Pay $30 per month on those rainy cloudy periods. And cleaner air for all!

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 8:25am

I am relieved that Whitmer didn't allow farmers to claim both the farmland preservation tax credit AND lease their land to solar developers. But very disappointed that the state is not requiring either the farmers or the solar developers to pay the back taxes at the higher rate to suspend the preservation limits on permitted activities.

I strongly urge all areas serviced by a Rural Electrical Cooperative to carefully study the effects of each and every proposed solar farm on your distribution grid. You should only purchase solar power at retail rates, and require a two-way capacity charge to get enough revenue to upgrade or maintain your equipment.

<a href="/">che...
Sun, 03/08/2020 - 7:00pm

Energy efficiency and renewable energy offer multiple benefits, including financial protection for both the co-op and its most vulnerable members