UMD Researchers Lead New Multi-Institutional Grant to Examine the Legal, Economic, and Policy Implications of Solar Power on Agricultural Land

Project will produce educational resources for Extension agents and attorneys to help farmers and rural landowners understand drawbacks and benefits

Image Credit: Linnaea Mallette

June 12, 2020 Samantha Watters

Researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) were recently awarded nearly $500K by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to lead a new multi-institutional investigation of solar power production on rural or agricultural land. With large-scale solar projects expanding quickly throughout the United States and new economic and policy incentives for renewable energy sources, agricultural land has become both a desirable and increasingly controversial site for solar panel installation. Leasing rural or agricultural land for solar production can provide many potential benefits to the landowner or farmer, but may also represent economic losses to the agricultural sector while changing the identity and dynamics of rural communities. These costs and benefits have not been fully explored by researchers, and without this knowledge, there is confusion among landowners about how to make sense of offers to lease their land for solar power production. With this new grant, researchers will be filling in these gaps in knowledge to help lay the groundwork for larger-scale nationwide research and education programs on solar power to serve rural landowners and ensure they can make the best possible decisions.

“People are very passionate about this issue of solar power on agricultural land, but it is confusing for farmers and landowners. And only a handful of attorneys in Maryland have any experience with the legalities involved,” explains lead investigator Paul Goeringer, senior faculty specialist with the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics and UMD Extension specialist. “We are looking at solar power from a legal standpoint with the help of expertise from partners at Oklahoma State University, and focusing on rural development with the help of colleagues from Cornell University. What are the legal and economic implications for solar power on agricultural land? Being able to say here is what a good lease looks like for your land, here are jobs lost and created, here are the impacts to communities - we can give people a better and more well-rounded view of how solar development would impact their lives.”

By partnering across Maryland, Oklahoma, and New York state to conduct this initial research, the team is hoping to represent different types of markets nationwide and give a sample of how this could apply to the country. The project will begin with a needs assessment to evaluate what people have seen in land leases they have been offered by solar companies, as well as their current knowledge and confusions around solar power production to better define what educational materials and outreach efforts are needed. Resources produced from this research will be targeting attorneys and Extension agents primarily, taking a train-the-trainer approach that educates the main resource centers that rural landowners and farmers will be seeking out when they want to learn more.

“As the value of land changes, and as the prices that people can command in the market go down, farmers face a lot of pressure for a lot of reasons to add solar panels to their property for economic stability,” says Mayhah Suri, faculty specialist in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics. “And that comes with a lot of positives and negatives, and also a lot of emotions. How will this change the rural economy and rural culture? A lot of people are addressing many different aspects, but UMD’s particular focus is on the leasing part of this. If farmers do decide to go with this option and lease their land for solar power, how can they ensure they are getting the best deal possible, and how can they make sure they actually understand what they are agreeing to?”

In order to address these questions, the researchers will be surveying rural landowners to really make sure all of their legal concerns, responsibilities for solar panel maintenance, pricing and leasing confusions, and the pros and cons economically and legally are examined across the agricultural sector. 

“Our goal is that once we start surveying landowners, we can try to assess, what is a good rental rate?” says Goeringer. “This really isn’t understood right now. If we can get a sense of rental rates, we will have better information on what is a good deal to educate landowners.”

“This whole area is something that has not been explored from an Extension perspective much yet in Maryland since it is somewhat newer, and so most of the feedback we’ve gotten on solar power from our stakeholders really guided this project so that we can meet the needs of the people who actually have questions,” adds Suri. 

In addition to educating attorneys and Extension agents, the team hopes that findings will help inform policy, serving as a contextual background to help local legislators and community boards make the best informed decisions possible for their constituents. “We are hoping this work can develop the blueprints for how this research can be replicated nationwide, and to lay some groundwork for what a baseline land lease should look like from a policy perspective,” says Goeringer. 

“I’m really proud of the role that Extension and the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources (AGNR)  can play in answering difficult questions like these that rural communities have,” says Suri. “As new technologies emerge, there are new opportunities, but also new opportunities for things to go wrong, and I’m proud of my role in trying to answer those questions for rural Marylanders, and if this model is successful, for rural communities across the country.” 

Goeringer adds, “This is just one project that AGNR is involved in on solar power, and it fits in nicely as a niche with some of the broader research on these issues. We are looking at this method of green technology from a perspective of profitable agricultural systems to answer the major questions of economic and agricultural losses and gains, and give people the tools they need to make smart decisions.”

This work is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), Award # 2020-68006-31182