Ontario bars solar on prime farmland, misses middle ground in agrivoltaics

Farmers have raised concerns about being outcompeted for land access by energy developers

Agrivoltaics allow farmers to combine two land uses, aligning food production with energy generation. Jack's Solar Garden/Agrovoltaic Learning Centre photo.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on June 19, 2024.

By Christopher Bonasia

The Ontario government is drawing a line against solar farms on prime agricultural land as it considers its next wave of renewable energy projects.

“All procurements will ensure that no new projects, regardless of type, are built in our finite specialty crop areas, and that ground-mounted solar projects specifically, will be prohibited in prime agricultural areas,” officials from the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, and Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Agribusiness told The Energy Mix in an email.

“Other technologies may be built, but only with a municipal support resolution and subject to the completion of an agricultural impact assessment to the satisfaction of the municipality.”

But less than 5% of Ontario’s land base is considered prime agricultural land—and then-provincial energy minister Todd Smith and agriculture minister Lisa Thompson have vowed to protect it.

On June 6, they instructed the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) to safeguard farmland land during its second long-term procurement (LT2-RFP) for around 2,000 megawatts of energy resources to meet electricity demand in 2030 and beyond.

Aiming to “recognize the economic benefits that the agricultural industry provides, while supporting Ontario’s growing electricity demand in a way that considers impacts to Ontario’s agricultural land and farm businesses,” they urged the IESO to prioritize projects that avoid prime farmland and bar ground-mounted solar from it, prohibit new projects in specialty crop areas, and only locate eligible resources on prime farmland with municipal support and local approval of an agricultural impact assessment.

Currently, Ontario’s guidelines [pdf] permit ground mounted solar panels and other “land-extensive energy facilities” in prime agricultural areas and specialty crop areas, but only as “on-farm diversified uses.” Projects in this category “shall be compatible with, and shall not hinder, surrounding agricultural operations,” the province says.

The Canadian Renewable Energy Association welcomed the joint letter, saying it provides clarity and “effectively strikes a balance between the growing need for clean energy and the need to protect prime agricultural areas.”

Siting solar projects on agricultural land is becoming a contentious issue in some parts of Canada.  Flat, open fields would be considered ideal for solar development, but building solar arrays on them can have damaging effects, especially when maintaining soil productivity becomes a lower priority than minimizing construction costs. Farmers have also raised concerns about being outcompeted for land access by energy developers, a critical issue as rising land prices make farmland increasingly inaccessible.

Solar, Farming Can Co-Exist

But there is a middle ground in agrivoltaics—where farmers in some cases have managed to combine two land uses, aligning food production with energy generation, including from solar installations.

“Incorporating agrivoltaics is similar to much of the corn acres in Ontario—a good portion of corn grown here goes for livestock feed directly, but also is used for ethanol with the byproduct fed to cattle,” said Lyndsey Smith, CEO of Shady Creek Lamb Co., an Ontario sheep farm that practices solar grazing—using hungry sheep to replace mechanical mowing and herbicide use at grassy solar sites.

“Solar grazing also creates high quality, nutrient dense protein as a byproduct, but more directly and with far lower fossil fuel use.”

Along with Chris Moore, Smith has used sheep to graze under solar panels since 2017, serving several sites over 700 acres leased or owned by solar generation companies. Only one of these sites of about 200 acres would be considered prime agricultural land, Smith said, and it is “by far the most productive grazing site we manage and hosts an amazing amount of biodiversity.”

Referring to the joint letter, Smith said Shady Creek supports exempting places like Ontario’s Holland Marsh wetland and agricultural area from solar development, and opposes development of solar on farmland without requiring agrivoltaics.

“It’s such a huge advantage for food production while producing energy, that we feel strongly that single use (power generation only) isn’t a responsible use of the land,” Smith said.

Moore added that combining energy generation with food production can help protect farmland and keep it accessible to young or beginning farmers.

“Solar grazing is a lot of work and does require an investment in equipment and livestock, but the barrier to entry is a fraction of what it would be for someone wanting to grain farm,” said Moore.

Smith adds that, when done right—and with an expectation of incorporating agrivoltaics—solar development can preserve farmland for perennial cover and grazing. It’s also “a reversible build,” Moore added, “unlike a subdivision or strip mall.”

“What we need are smart, well written policies that require food and solar to co-exist, and enterprising farmers to follow through on the requirement,” said Smith.

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