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Penn State study finds Pa. farmers looking at solar leases consider money, land use

A solar array at the Nittany 1 Solar Farm is seen here in Lurgan Township, Franklin County on Nov. 24, 2020.
Rachel McDevitt
StateImpact Pennsylvania
A solar array at the Nittany 1 Solar Farm is seen here in Lurgan Township, Franklin County on Nov. 24, 2020.

A study from Penn State looks into what values farmers consider before signing a solar lease.

Farmland is appealing to developers for grid-scale solar because it’s often easy to build on and close to infrastructure like transmission lines.

Solar can be enticing to farmers because the lease offers predictable income.

Lead author Kaitlyn Spangler said profit alone isn’t enough for farmers to sign over control of their land. She said they are carefully considering if solar is the right fit for their farm, and if it is, how much of their land are they willing to lease.

“Farmers are seeing long-term solar leases as a less permanent use of their land than selling the land for residential housing or warehouse development,” said Spangler, an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The lease preserves the option to farm again, even decades down the line.

For the paper, Spangler and her co-authors interviewed nine farmers and nine people who work in the solar industry between 2021-22. It was published in the most recent issue of the journal Energy Research & Social Science.

Spangler, who is from rural Berks County, said the paper also shows common things in large-scale solar project leases might limit farmers’ options.

She said leases might leave the possibility of farming while the panels are there, but it’s usually not a guarantee because there is not an incentive or requirement for developers to include it.

“We’re not really seeing that pre-planning for agrisolar on some of these grid scale sites, which I think is a missed opportunity,” Spangler said.

The researchers found that nondisclosure agreements are common in the beginning stages of a leasing process, which can make it difficult for farmers to learn if they are getting a good deal on the lease.

Spangler said farmers should be able to consider terms like the price per acre, an inflation escalator over the life of the lease, and the right of first refusal for vegetation management, meaning the farmers would get first dibs on caring for the land under solar panels.

It is encouraged for farmers to hire a lawyer when considering a solar lease.

Spangler says the more transparent the process is, the more room there will be for exciting new pathways to a diversified energy grid.

There are hundreds of solar projects planned for Pennsylvania that are waiting for approval from the regional electric grid operator PJM.

Siting projects on farmland is often visible to neighbors and can spark concerns over a loss of community character and property values.

A proposed 1,000-acre project in Mount Joy Township near Gettysburg was rejected when township supervisors declined to grant a conditional use permit. The company behind the plan lost a court challenge to overturn that decision last year. In Lebanon County last month, a local judge denied another company’s request to permit a 858-acre solar energy farm in North Annville Township.

There are no statewide laws governing solar development. Each of the state’s municipalities may set its own ordinance, but few have.

Community solar projects may only occupy a few acres and allow people nearby to directly subscribe to the power generated. But those projects are not allowed under Pennsylvania law. Measures to open up that sector have been introduced in the legislature but have not been voted on by a full chamber this session.