Op-Ed: Large-scale solar threatens NJ’s farmland

Jeff Tober

There’s no question that we need to significantly increase use of solar and other clean sources of energy as quickly as possible to meet New Jersey’s worthy Energy Master Plan goal of transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2050 and try to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Farms and farmland may very well play some role in this vital effort. However, we cannot jeopardize our rich and rapidly shrinking agricultural lands to do so.

Utility-scale solar developer Dakota Power has proposed massive projects on prime farmlands across New Jersey, including so-called dual-use projects they claim will bring both solar generation and agriculture development benefits, financial stability for farmers, and improved soil and crop yields — theories that are far from proven.

While the concept of dual use might sound appealing, the reality remains to be seen and studies are just now underway to determine the long-term impacts. Some crops might flourish in the shadow of solar panels, but farming that can take place around and under solar arrays is in fact quite limited. Dakota’s proposed dual-use project in Salem County was restricted to sheep grazing; the Pilesgrove Township Planning Board rejected it over concerns about the size of the project and potential harm to agricultural heritage.

The impact on soil and crop yields is an added concern. The State Agricultural Development Committee has set a target of preserving over 500,000 acres of the state’s best farmland to maintain a viable agricultural industry in New Jersey. If solar development is incentivized on these important agricultural lands and further erodes the land base available to farms, there might not be enough land in the state for food production.

When a farm is preserved, the state compensates farmers for a portion of their land’s value. This helps keep farmers financially able to continue farming. Preserved farms can install solar panels to generate their own electricity, but not for commercial purposes that would be inconsistent with preservation goals and public investment in those lands.

Where best to site solar projects

Fortunately, the state Board of Public Utilities is proposing a sound approach to solar siting as it develops a new solar incentive program. The BPU’s draft proposal would steer solar projects toward the built environment or marginal lands, avoiding open spaces, forests, wetlands, and our best farmland soils prioritized for preservation.   

Recently passed legislation takes a similar approach. However, both BPU’s proposal and the legislation would allow up to 5% of the best farmland soils now prioritized for preservation in each county to be excluded from the siting restrictions on such lands. That could result in over 8,000 acres of solar on prime farmland. We can’t afford to lose that much and still meet our farmland preservation goals.

New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan offers a guide for avoiding the open space vs. solar conflict. It suggests directing solar projects toward rooftops, carports, the state’s many already disturbed lands like landfills and brownfields, and marginalized land — and away from important farmland. Such marginalized land could include non-preserved farmland with poor soil or underused non-pristine lands where solar projects could exist without compromising the state’s farmland and open space.

But, until we know more, dual-use solar is just a cover story told by developers such as Dakota Power to put solar where it doesn’t belong — on our best farmland soils that should be preserved for long-term food production. The concept should be further studied and could be viable on a smaller scale to achieve benefits on farms that are not likely to be preserved.

Proponents of locating solar arrays on prime farmland talk about it as though it’s an elegant solution. The trouble is, it’s not elegant and it’s not a solution. New Jersey must remain on the path to preserving farms and open spaces and transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources like solar. We don’t need to give up one for the other.

We are the Garden State because we are blessed with rich farmland. But as the saying about land goes, “They ain’t making any more of it.” Thus, we have to be vigilant protectors of the farmland we have left. Solar arrays are a part of some working farms and might make sense for others. But let’s go full throttle on solar panels on roofs, warehouses, brownfields, and carports to meet the bulk of our solar goals. There’s no danger that New Jersey will run out of those.

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