Renewable energy vs. regenerative agriculture: can we do both?

With climate extremes increasing in frequency and intensity, two mitigation methods regularly emerge – conversion to renewable energy and expanding regenerative agriculture.

Both have their benefits. The problem is, they are increasingly competing for the same land.

Wind and solar energy are now cheaper than fossil fuel. So project developers are eager to expand, and often look to farmland for potential project sites. Because it tends to be flat and clear, it provides good exposure to wind and sun.

On the other hand, regenerative agriculture returns atmospheric carbon, a lead contributor to climate havoc, to the soil where it belongs. This makes it probably the easiest and most effective tool to combat climate change.

With these two much-needed land use options competing for already scarce and expensive farmland, the question arises: must they be mutually exclusive?

American Farmland Trust ( AFT) supports development of both solar energy and regenerative agriculture. With their Smart Solar initiative they help guide new solar projects to meet four main goals:

  1. Prioritize solar siting on the built environment and land not
    well suited for farming- rooftops, irrigation ditches, brownfields, and marginal lands
  2. Safeguard the ability for land to be used for agriculture – protect soil health and
    productivity, especially during construction and decommissioning of energy projects
  3. Grow “agrivoltaics” for agricultural production and solar energy – allow for farming underneath and/or between rows of solar panels throughout the life of the project
  4. Promote equity and farm viability – require inclusive stakeholder engagement, including farmers and underserved communities, to ensure widespread benefits from solar energy development

Similarly, there’s Smart Growth America, a development approach which helps urban and rural communities alike grow more economically prosperous, socially equitable, and environmentally sustainable through compact development and conservation of critical environmental areas, like farmland.

The US aims to achieve net-zero emissions in the next 30 years. At the same time, our baby-boomer farmers are aging and retiring – AFT expects half of all U.S. farmland to change hands in the next 15 years.

So when these farmers are approached by energy developers with deep pockets and lucrative leases, they must decide between reaping financial rewards or keeping the farm as a farm, maybe for their kids, or for one of the 78 percent of today’s young farmers that didn’t grow up in farming and struggle to access ever-more-expensive land.

With the Smart plans in place in communities around the country, we can help find room for both farming and energy, and not leave tough decisions up to the farmers. It just requires planning and cooperation.

We got this.

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