In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a historic bill that established a community solar program in the state of New Jersey. If properly implemented, the program promises to grow New Jersey's renewable energy sector and help increase access to solar energy to more families, communities and businesses throughout the state.
The legislation is now with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities where a regulatory framework will be developed for the program. Among the many issues they are working to determine is whether community solar projects can be developed on farmland and/or other open space.
As an organization that advocates for New Jersey’s agricultural producers and enterprises, we urge the BPU to allow consideration of a wide diversity of agricultural land possibilities. Community solar represents a tremendous opportunity for farmers in New Jersey to participate in the clean energy economy and improve the economics and environmental sustainability of their farms, all without necessarily jeopardizing land resources.
Food and agriculture is a major New Jersey industry that brings in billions of dollars in revenue to the state. In 2015, the state’s more than 9,000 farms and 720,000 acres of farmland generated cash receipts of approximately $1 billion. Retaining productive farmland is critically important to all New Jersey residents since agriculture is such an integral economic contributor, not to mention a significant source of scenic vistas throughout the state.
Agriculture continues to be a challenging occupation with extreme variability and risk factors. Economic viability is crucial to keeping farmland in active production. Allowing community solar arrays to be developed on less-productive portions of farmland could provide farmers a stable, secondary source of income. In fact, community solar facilities generally have a life span of 25 years and pay annual income to participating farmers.
Solar does not have to be intrusive and is able to have a minimal impact to lands if planned for correctly. Solar facilities are quiet, use little water and emit no pollutants. Once a facility is decommissioned, the land is unencumbered by its previous use for solar.
In addition, environmental stewardship can be enabled through the use of solar. Farmers are able to take the land out of production to manage weeds and improve soil health. Solar facilities can be constructed to allow for grazing livestock and the planting of shade-tolerant crops under or near panels. Solar facilities also allow interested farmers to create pollinator habitats that can help manage wild bee populations.
Other states have shown how community solar facilities can thrive on farmlands, especially in Minnesota and Massachusetts. Minnesota has over 350 megawatts of community solar in service, with the majority being hosted on farmlands in rural communities. More than half of the 4,000 acres of solar farms built in 2016 and 2017 feature native plants that not only benefit pollinators but also beautify the site. In Massachusetts, there are pioneering efforts to allow for the same land to be used simultaneously by solar production and livestock or plantings.
We applaud Gov. Murphy and the state Legislature for passing innovative community solar legislation and stand ready to help the state fulfill its ambitious clean energy agenda. Now it’s up to the BPU to give farmers the opportunity to join the clean energy economy by allowing community solar arrays to be developed on certain portions of farmland. In doing so, it will be a win-win for the agriculture industry, energy customers, the electric-power grid and New Jersey’s environment.
Peter Furey is executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau