Vermont has close to 1 million acres of primary agricultural soils. REV’s modeling suggests that we could double our 2030 in-state renewable energy requirement from 10% to 20% of our load using roughly an additional 2,300 acres of land for solar. At the theoretical extreme where all solar development took place on agricultural soils, this would constitute less than 0.3% of our primary agricultural soils and would represent only a tiny fraction of the agricultural land currently converted for urban and residential development.
Vermont has a long history of environmental stewardship and today that commitment to protecting our environment means expanding renewable energy generation to power our rapidly electrifying future. Meeting the challenge of ‘electrifying everything’ in a cost-effective and just manner will require a multifaceted approach to procuring new renewables, including building considerably more solar power right here in Vermont. With Vermont farmers squeezed by rising costs and competition from out-of-state, industrial agriculture and competition for land for residential uses, the prospect of building more renewables in Vermont raises understandable concerns about whether or not this will add additional hardships for Vermont farmers by taking more land out of agricultural production. Fortunately, the additional land area required to double our 2030 in-state renewable energy requirement from 10% to 20% is relatively modest and in some cases, the solar projects built to meet this requirement would improve the viability of farming in Vermont.
Primary Agricultural Land in Vermont
Affordable access to high-quality farmland is vital for protecting the viability of Vermont agriculture. Statewide there are close to 1 million acres of primary agricultural soils in Vermont and an additional 330,000 acres of soils that would qualify as primary agricultural soils with appropriate drainage or flood mitigation measures.
Acres of Primary Agricultural Soils
|Percent Primary Agricultural Soils|
Urban and residential development has steadily cut into this resource. The Farmland Information Center estimated that 21,000 acres of agricultural land in Vermont were developed for urban or low-density residential land uses between 2001 and 2016 and they project that another 41,000 acres will be converted for this purpose between 2016 and 2040.
By contrast, building an additional 650 MW of solar through a mix of on-site net-metering and larger projects would require on the order of 2,300 acres, only a portion of which would impact agricultural soils. Unlike residential development, solar development does not permanently remove land from agricultural production and in many cases can help keep farms operational.
In 2022, the Public Utility Commission issued Certificates of Public Good for 19 solar projects 250 kW or larger. These projects, with a total capacity of 26.1 MW, will provide more than 32,000 MWh of clean, renewable electricity each year, enough to power more than 3,800 Vermont homes. Collectively, less than 100 acres of primary agricultural soils fell within the area of disturbance for these projects.
How Solar Helps Keep Farms in Operation
Hosting solar projects can provide farmers with a new, diversified income stream from more marginally productive areas on their property. By leasing land for solar projects, farmers can increase the profitability of their farms while maintaining ownership of their land and preserving the option to use that land for agriculture in the future. Unlike when farmers sell off plots of land for other forms of development and that land is lost for agricultural use, solar projects have a 20 – 25 year lifetime after which farmers have the opportunity to return the site to agricultural use or re-power it with newer, more efficient solar a panels.
Advancements in agrovoltaics – the practice of using land simultaneously for solar generation and agricultural purposes – are also making it increasingly feasible to keep land in agriculture production even as it is used to generate renewable electricity.
The Bottom Line
Renewables in Vermont are best understood as a part of Vermont’s working landscape rather than a threat to it. The magnitude of land area needed to support renewable energy is a small fraction of what is being used to support increasingly sprawling development in Vermont and renewables integrate well across our developed and working landscapes.