The Maryland legislature is poised to adopt legislation that would allow the location of wind and solar energy projects on small portions of farmland designated as preserved for agricultural use only. The measure, which moved through the Maryland House of Delegates this week by a 97-33 margin and will likely pass through the state Senate soon, raises questions over the value that farmland is supposed to provide.
The role of agriculture in the U.S. economy is a critical one and the arguments of those who say that the land needed to assure an ample supply of food, feed and fiber must be protected against commercial encroachment are valid. But it must be pointed out that the output from agricultural land has evolved, also producing energy that, like food, feed and fiber, helps provide human sustenance. Most of that energy output is in the form of feedstocks used in the production of biofuels and biopower. But the agricultural landscape is rapidly accommodating other sustainable energy resources, including wind energy and solar power.
The Maryland legislation is the latest in an effort across several states to give landowners the additional economic opportunity that comes from siting small-scale renewable energy facilities on land that is preserved by law for agricultural use. The move aims in large part to give financially-stressed agricultural operations the chance to remain viable by providing additional revenue streams.
State efforts to preserve farmland come principally through programs that offer conservation easements that obligate landowners to relinquish development rights and restrict their use of the land to agricultural purposes, in exchange for payments. Many also provide counties with state funds to compensate for any loss of local tax revenues resulting from a preferred tax status often given lands designated as preserved.
The economic case for taxpayer support for farmland preservation is an easy one: farms support local economies through job creation, support services and other businesses, and the creation of secondary markets such as food processing and distribution. Farm and ranch lands typically generate more in local revenues than they require in local services.
Of course, the economic benefits of renewable energy production on preserved farmland is at the heart of legislation like the measure in Maryland and programs in states like New Jersey, Oregon and California, among others. Not only do landowners earn additional revenues, but in many cases, consumers benefit from the lower cost of sustainably produced energy from wind and solar sources, compared to power derived from fossil fuels.
Preservationists strenuously cite the environmental benefits of setting aside agricultural easements on land that could be readily developed for commercial purposes. It is land that tends to be flat, well drained and open, often making it a prime target for development. And as housing and commercial ventures encroach on farmland, they increase the costs and risks of production drive up the value of the land beyond the reach of agricultural producers.
The environmental benefits of renewable energy have long been established. Among other benefits, it improves air quality by replacing high-emission fossil fuels with low- or no-emission sources of clean energy. Renewable energy production is sustainable, while drilling and mining for fossil fuels often have widespread, harmful impacts on the land, as well as on air and water quality.
Renewable energy projects, done right and with a minimum footprint, do not conflict with preservationist arguments that farmland must be protected to sustain food production. The Maryland legislation, for example, restricts the location of solar or wind projects to no more than five acres. Other programs put a small cap on the percentage of preserved land that can be used to site a project. Farming is compatible with wind and solar facilities. And the projects are considerably less intrusive when compared to commercial development. After all, solar and wind facilities – unlike housing and shopping centers ‑ can be dismantled and removed, leaving the land intact.
There is a reason why proponents of the Maryland legislation include that state’s Agriculture Land Preservation Foundation. As with the programs in other states it would emulate, the Maryland bill is sensitive in its approach to the development of renewable energy facilities on the land. It protects the integrity of the land. It offers landowners the opportunity to keep their land in agricultural production and not give in to the financial lure of commercial development. The location of renewable energy projects, done with a minimum impact, conforms to the new dynamic of farmland as the source of food, feed, fiber AND energy. Siting new, appropriately scaled sources of clean energy on preserved farmland is a win-win for all.