When Walker Gottfried, a farmer in north central Ohio, began to consider leasing some of his land for solar use, he turned to the Ohio State Extension program to assist in making the decision. As it turned out, a former high school classmate had the answers.
Eric Romich, associate professor of food, agricultural and environmental sciences and extension field specialist, has intensively studied energy development, particularly relating to solar panels, and his time overlapped with Gottfried’s at their Ohio high school. With colleagues Peggy Hall, associate professor and director of the Agricultural and Resource Law Program at Ohio State, and Evin Bachelor, a former fellow of the law program, Romich created the Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing, a booklet aimed at helping farmers make informed conclusions about whether they should lease their farmland for solar development.
The guide includes examples of good and bad leases, unbiased information and helpful visuals that facilitate the process. Romich, a Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty member, works directly with farmers to aid in their decisions about these issues. Each family has different long-term goals for the farm. Some are concerned about living with a large-scale solar development and not being able to use their farmland for a long period of time, while others focus on the profitability of the lease payments.
“The thing that I enjoy about this position is working with people to better understand real challenges and opportunities facing their farms. I don’t measure success by how many solar projects are developed and installed on farms. I measure success by how many farmers I worked with that received information to reach an informed decision about what’s the best decision for their farm, their business,” Romich says.
He examines the structure and long-term goals of the farm to determine how the project will affect operations. “It is important to think about what the worst possible scenario is and evaluate the lease agreement to determine if you are prepared,” he says.
After considering aspects from surface drainage to weed control and taxation to site remediation, discussions occur about the possible income from the lease agreement to determine if the return is worth the risk. Using the best available information, Romich encourages his clients to analyze all the positive and negative aspects of the project to reach a decision about leasing their ground for a long-term, utility-scale solar project. However, the process is not a simple one and comes with many complications.
According to Hall, neighborhood backlash commonly arises, and families sometimes quarrel about the idea. Land leased from a farmer for solar installations is taken out of service for years, potentially even permanently.
“It’s a challenge to prepare for how the community will react. We have seen some friction, and the landowners I’ve talked to are surprised to find that people don’t want solar energy in their neighborhood. They aren’t prepared for the pushback that comes when neighbors get wind of it, and it has pitted neighbors against one another,” Hall explains.
In the end, Gottfried, who runs a row crop family farm, mostly focusing on corn, beans and wheat, used the resources provided by Romich to narrow his options and proceed with the solar implementation. The thoroughness of the Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing helped Gottfried throughout the process, and it allowed him to identify areas he needed to research in further detail.
“It was a family decision. Not all of our landowners are farmers, so it was a push and pull between what we’ve always done and taking a risk that would put our land out of use for 20 or more years. We have a love for operating our farm ground, but the benefits that the diversification and high returns leasing solar would bring were too good to turn down,” Gottfried said.
Though none of this power goes toward their farm, they still profit off the land use fees and are contributing to a more sustainable world by creating a site for solar production. Farms, corporations and individuals choose solar because of its environmental impact and the increased income from higher lease rates. Additionally, it diversifies farm income so not all land is dependent on corn and soybean markets.
Romich also helps farmers decide whether to add solar as an option for providing power for their farm operations, considering weather limitations such as the need for energy storage — another layer of complication and cost — when sunlight is sparse. Solar also has a low power density that requires a lot of land to generate a little power, resulting in a glass ceiling for its expansion potential.
The Sustainability Institute at Ohio State has served as a critical facilitator of interdisciplinary collaborations for Romich. Kate Bartter, Sustainability Institute executive director, has linked him with numerous other Ohio State experts, like Chris Zoller, associate professor and extension educator and Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty, as well as Jordan Clark, a major partner of Romich. Clark, a Sustainability Institute core faculty member, is an assistant professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and construction systems management. His modeling expertise has helped Romich to make better and more accurate models of farmers’ energy consumption in farm livestock facilities.
The team recently received a $400,111 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to scale up pilot work on ways farms can improve energy management through peak load shifting, energy efficiency improvements and on-site renewable generation.
Though the growing field of solar energy has a definite place in the future, Romich and his colleagues assert that a completely renewable energy system would be an incredible challenge that would take decades to accomplish. Fossil and nuclear resources with higher power densities are more reliably controlled than renewable energy and are simply too cheap and too easy to be rapidly eradicated.
“I personally think that we need to have a balance. Solar, like all means of energy production, has its strengths and weaknesses,” emphasizes Romich. “A combination of sources will balance both the necessities of the environment and the economy.”
Written by Aurora Ellis, a student communications assistant at the Sustainability Institute.