MONMOUTH (WGME) – There’s a new opportunity for Maine farms to make money but some farmers are worried about an emerging trend to lease land to solar companies.
Most big solar projects in Maine are public partnerships, including one in Portland, where the city draws energy from a solar array on top of a capped landfill.
But in the private sector, solar is emerging as a new trend for farmers to cut costs and it is happening around the country.
At the Milk House in Monmouth, the farm’s sunflowers aren’t the only thing soaking up the rays. Crews are installing solar panels on a barn roof. Co-owner Andy Smith followed the lead of two farms in South China. He chose the roof over placing panels in fields, fearing it would take away crop yields.
“Right now Maine is at a turning point. We just had changes in solar policy at the State House that are greatly going to incentivize the development of solar power. And literally overnight, farmers like myself are being contacted by out-of-state investment companies looking to lease land for 20-25 years,” he said.
That is what is happening in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Seven farms are leasing 500 acres to install solar panels alongside their crops to get lease payments for the next 30 years.
“Well, there’s no question that here’s been a surge in activity here in Pennsylvania from solar companies interested in talking to farmers about potentially leasing their land for solar projects or even purchasing land for solar projects,” said Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill.
That is similar to what is happening in Farmington. The town manager said the planning board approved in the spring what would be the state’s largest private property solar array on Sandy Rivers Farms at 500 acres.
But the batch of barn-mounted panels at the Milk House is different. The farm did not agree to a lease and it is not expected to pad the farm’s bottom line but rather to zero out their electric bills after about a decade.
Fairfield town officials said a farm owner is working with NextEra for panels on a 120-acre plot on Kendall Annex Road but nearby on Route 201, neighbors filed an appeal for a planned project, saying the panels will hurt their home values.
Maine towns are now trying to figure out the balance as property owners and solar companies wrestle over real estate. They are eager to get going before the state or towns start passing ordinances to restrict solar development on agricultural or forest land.