Renewable energy advocates and utility-scale developers argue large solar projects landing on acres, upon acres of Wisconsin farmland give those fields and pastures a welcomed respite from fertilizers and the rigors of farming.
But not everyone agrees.
Solar skeptics question how installing literally millions of solar panels as well as underground transmission equipment and battery storage infrastructure will impact soil health, neighboring farms and livestock and local ecosystems including wildlife, bees and pollination levels.
It’s a question also playing out around the country as rows of solar panels and towering windmills increasingly cover farmland once home to rows of corn, wheat and soybeans and pastures with grazing cattle and sheep.
‘Can’t possibly be good for the environment’
Edward Ring, a senior fellow at the California Policy Center (a libertarian and conservative think tank), worries about how large solar installations will impact lands where they will be located for the next 25 to 50 years.
“Covering hundreds of square miles of earth with solar panels can’t possibly be good for the environment,” Ring said. “Nobody’s given a lot of thought to how these solar farms will be reprocessed when the panels degrade after 20 to 25 years.”
That includes what happens as solar arrays and panels age and whether they will create heat islands. But Ring said there is not substantial or substantive research into the impacts of big solar and wind farms.
“There isn’t good research on the heat island effect, but obviously that is going to become a major issue as the quantity of solar panel covered land is increased,” Ring said.
He said renewable energy advocates — from environmental groups and progressive politicians to government agencies and utilities — are not anxious to look at the downsides of solar and wind in the rush to reduce carbon emissions.
“They’re not doing any studies on stuff that might embarrass the industry,” Ring said.
Potentially more important, solar skeptics worry about the impacts of utility-scale projects on flowers, bees and pollination cycles. “What impacts would all the radiant heat have on flowers and on bees? It might be fatal problems,” Ring said.
Thirty-five percent of global crop production is dependent on pollinators, according to a report by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, which backs renewable energy growth and reducing emissions.
The research group, said, if done right, solar farms can be beneficial to pollination cycles
“Planting pollinator-friendly vegetation in solar farms provides multiple ecological and economic benefits to stakeholders. Using native plants as ground cover can help recharge groundwater, reduce erosion, and improve soil carbon sequestration,” the EESI report.
‘Added benefit’In Wisconsin, utilities, energy firms, renewable energy and major environmental groups say new solar farms, where farmers lease out land for 25, 30 or 50 years, will be good for lands that have seen decades, or even centuries, of agriculture use.
“It’s really an added benefit. At most of these sites there’s been heavy crop use,” said Tony Palese, spokesman for Alliant Energy (the utility is developing 12 solar farms across the state as it looks to move totally off coal-fired electricity production by 2040). “Planting some of these native grasses and flower mixes helps regenerate that soil, promoting good water quality and preventing erosion.”
Palese said Madison-based Alliant will plant wildflowers and other plants for bees to help maintain pollination levels for bees.
Those types of efforts are also cited by farmers who are leasing agricultural lands for solar developments.
Michael Vickerman, program and policy director for Renew Wisconsin (which advocates for renewable energy), said there are still some unknowns related to the short- and long-term impacts but sees the ecological upside of solar farms and farmland.
“We’re still in the early stage of finding out how long it takes to establish the grasses and plants under the arrays,” Vickerman said.
But he sees potential benefits for soil health and water quality pointing to the use of fertilizers with nitrates on agricultural lands that can negatively impact water quality in nearby streams, rivers and estuaries. “There’s quite a lot of nitrate compounds in fertilizers,” Vickerman said, referring to ammonium, sodium, potassium, and calcium salts that are key elements in some fertilizers.
First in lineVickerman, however, does have some preferences on what kind of rural lands solar and other renewable energy projects should be landing first.
“I do think there are some areas of the state that should be approached first,” Vickerman said. He prefers solar developments land near existing transmission lines and not border “sensitive areas.”
He also said there are areas of rural Wisconsin where the topography is more conducive to uses other than farming.
“Wisconsin is not uniformly farmland, There are pockets here that just don’t work for conventional agriculture,” Vickerman said.
Areas of northern, eastern and central Wisconsin have sandy soil that dates back to the Ice Age. That includes the Glacial Lake Wisconsin Plain that was a prehistoric lake that stretched more than 240 miles an estimated 18,000 years ago.
Sandy soil areas of that are home to red pine forests and plantation, cranberry bogs as well as fracking and other industrial mining. Vickerman said farming on some of those sandy lands requires significant irrigation — thus creating some merit to look at other uses.
”It really doesn’t make sense to clear cut thousands of acres of trees and install glass panels when there is plenty of industrial-zoned land in the county,” Ralston said.
She wants solar farms limited to 300 acres or less and utility-scale projects restricted to industrial land.
Dean Ortwell, president and CEO of the Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative, said it’s the larger, sprawling solar developments that tend to create the most local opposition as well as potential impacts on neighboring farms and ecosystems.
He said smaller solar projects generate less controversy and potential impacts. “I’d like to see everyone get more dense,” said Ortwell, adding that his coop is part of a 12-acre “solar farm” at an industrial park in Stanley (east of Eau Claire).
In California, Ring has bigger worries about the loss of farmland in the agriculture-rich Central Valley to solar and other renewable energy installations. California produces 11.8% of the country’s food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is the most of any state. Iowa is second (8%). Wisconsin is 10th (2.9%).
“We are losing total crop production and we are losing diversity of agricultural crops, and we are making the agricultural sector less competitive with fewer players,” said Ring.