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

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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