Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday announced an executive decision that frees up 3.3 million acres of farmland protected under the state's Farmland and Open Space Program to solar development.
Previously, the land was allowed to host wind turbines and oil and gas exploration, but solar was historically restricted because it was considered to have a larger footprint, Tom Zimnicki agriculture policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council told Utility Dive. But innovations in solar siting are making those installations more compatible with agricultural land, and under Whitmer's decision, solar projects on protected farmland will be required to meet Michigan's pollinator-friendly guidelines.
More than a dozen states currently have policy checklists certifying a solar site as "pollinator-friendly" and the trend is growing in regions with large rural populations that have to consider land-use constraints due to limited farming land.
Solar energy in the U.S. is expected to require 3 million acres of land by 2030 and 6 million by 2050, according to the National Renewable Laboratory (NREL). And as the cost of installations drop, the resource is becoming more attractive to regions that haven't traditionally invested in solar.
"Solar for a long time ... has just been thought of as one thing and it's really the design that came out of the California and Arizona Desert," Rob Davis, who directs the Center for Pollinators in Energy and also leads the Media & Innovation Lab at Fresh Energy in Minnesota, told Utility Dive.
"What's exciting about this is that we're seeing innovation in solar farm designs to reflect the high value agricultural soils of the Midwest and eastern markets."
Whitmer's decision allows farmland owners to enter into a lease agreement with solar developers for up to 90 years, which they receive a tax break on. The land has to meet a score of at least 76 on Michigan's pollinator friendly checklist, developed by the Michigan State Department of Entomology.
The solar siting is intended to be temporary under the state's law, and once the project lease is up, the land needs to be in good enough shape to revert back to agricultural purposes. Pollinator-friendly sites are officiated by vegetation consultants and include a wide variety of native plant species to attract pollinators and maintain the health and ecology of the land under the solar panels.
"Initially, it was discussed that we would just put in grass ground cover essentially," said Zimnicki. "But for us, we really saw this as an opportunity to get multiple wins with the same project. And so in our mind, if you're going to put solar on preserved farmland, you need to be doing something more than just turf grass underneath."
Michigan has the second most diversified agricultural economy in the U.S., after California, said Davis, so preserving agricultural viability is critical to the state's economy. And crops such as blueberries greatly depend on pollinators to maximize the cultivation of the state's 22,000 acres of the fruit.
"Those pollinators have to make 460 billion visits every year within a five week period to maximize the yields of those blueberries," said Davis.
"So if you don't keep the pollinators alive, then it's human labor that is going to be going around with little paint brushes to try to pollinate all of those individual little blueberry flowers. … In Michigan, they really understand pollination ecology."