County’s solar presentation gets hostile reception
ESCANABA — Michigan State University Extension Bioenergy Educator Charles Gould was in Escanaba Tuesday to speak on how agricultural practices and solar developments can coexist, but his presentation was met with hostility from a vocal group of residents that opposed all forms of utility-scale solar projects.
“I’m coming from the standpoint that land should never be used exclusively for solar power production. So what I mean by that, is we don’t put solar arrays out just to harvest the sun’s energy for power production. That land is too valuable,” said Gould, who comes from a dairy farming background.
Gould presented four primary ways that solar farms can be used in conjunction with solar power generation in ways that enhance both practices.
The first agricultural practice he discussed was grazing and forage production. For utilities, the main benefit of grazing animals around solar panels is the animals prevent grasses and weeds from growing over the panels and blocking light.
Grazing is also one of the cheapest ways to manage the land beneath a solar array, with a recent study showing it costs $1.55 per kilowatt hour (direct current) per year to graze sheep at a solar site, compared to $1.51 for turfgrass, $1.75 for gravel or $2.23 for native vegetation. Solar producers typically budget between 50 cents and $1.80 per kilowatt hour per year for vegetation management.
“The end result is not a manicured lawn like you would get with a bush hog, but you get a typical grazed-pasture look. And solar developers don’t care, as long as those weeds or the grass doesn’t grow above that bottom lip of the solar array, they are just absolutely fine with it,” said Gould.
For farmers, the forage quality is as good or better in many cases at these solar sites, where the solar panels can offer partial shade and shelter to the forage crops. Some crops, like red clover, produce more crude protein and have higher digestibility when grown around solar panels, reducing some of the impact of the panels themselves taking up growing space.
However, the farmer may need to consider the type of animals they will have grazing. Sheep can graze around most standard solar installations, but cattle may require taller support structures to prevent the animals from damaging the system while rubbing against them.
Another way solar farms can benefit agriculture is by using the land as pollinator habitat. It may be more expensive to establish a pollinator habitat — largely due to the cost of pollinator-friendly vegetation — but the impact on the yield for nearby crops can exceed the cost of wildflower establishment and maintenance.
Solar panels can also be used as conservation cover, which produces a habitat suitable for the protection of specific species. According to one study Gould presented, native grassland habitat on solar developments produced a three-fold increase in pollinator supply, a 65% increase in carbon storage potential, and increased sediment and water retention when compared to pre-solar agricultural uses on the same land.
The last of the four farming practice presented by Gould was “agrivoltaics,” the practice of growing crops for food or fiber beneath solar arrays. Common crops for agrivolatics include greens, root crops, herbs, berries, and other vegetables. Solar panels also have been shown to reduce frost damage to crops like nectarines and apples by sheltering buds when the panels are installed above trees.
Gould also presented a new type of solar panel, the vertical bifacial panel, which forms a wall of paneling that can be used as a fence to contain animals. If placed correctly, farming implements also can pass between panels, allowing solar farms to share land with crops like wheat.
Many of the questions asked of Gould following the presentation were not related to dual-use solar projects or Gould’s presentation, but instead were criticisms of solar energy. One person in the crowd alleged solar panels promoted human trafficking, others suggested the panels should be installed in Detroit where the land was “already ruined,” and another asked what would happen if someone shot a panel with a gun.
“Hunters, you know, are a different breed. What would happen when they shot one of these things because they’re p—ed off at someone? You know, would the cadmium go flying? I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but sooner or later…” said resident Kaye Rowlands.
Gould didn’t know the full impact of a panel being shot by a gun, but responded by saying, “Please don’t shoot the solar modules” and asking anyone who sees someone shooting a solar panel to report it to the police.
Some of the statements made by the crowd related heavily to proposed solar developments in Escanaba Township.
When Gould suggested residents consult their community’s master plan for information, one resident yelled out “We know what it says. No solar.” However, the pushback against solar in the township is a relatively recent development. Escanaba Township’s master plan, last updated in 2019, references solar as a “goal” or “opportunity” six separate times, includes evaluating evolving solar technologies as a strategy, explicitly states solar is a permitted use in the township’s zoning, and suggests the township become a SolSmart community under the U.S. Department of Energy’s “SolSmart” solar program.
It was also stated by Escanaba Township Planning Commissioner Barbie Clairmont during her comments after Gould’s presentation that the proposed solar developments were to be constructed in a “residential area.” With the exception of rural residential zoning strips along roads — which allow all agricultural uses except the keeping of horses as permitted uses by right — all of the last publicly announced solar project was to be constructed on land zoned for agricultural or resource production, according to the township’s 2010 zoning map.
The 2010 map is the most recent zoning map available, however, the township has repeatedly said the map is not valid for reasons unrelated to solar development. The land in question was also zoned as agricultural or resource production in the original township zoning map adopted in 1976.
While Gould wasn’t able to answer all of the questions presented or address any of the issues specifically related to Escanaba Township, he did attempt to answer as many questions as possible.
He noted that new solar technology has eliminated many of the heavy metals found in older solar panels; that galvanized steel pipes used to anchor solar panels contain zinc but there is no clear indication zinc would leak into groundwater unless the water is highly acidic based on current research; PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are not commonly used in modern solar panels and there is no evidence PFAS leach into the soil from older panels that are in use or have been retired; glare is not an issue, as panels are designed to absorb and not reflect the sun; and broken panels are not known to leak heavy metals even when exposed to rainwater.