Expansion of Solar Energy is Putting America’s Key Farmlands at Risk

By: Georgia | Published: Apr 29, 2024

When Dave Duttlinger spotted a dense, yellowish-brown cloud above his Indiana farm, his first thought was a grim “I told you so.” 

His fears about leasing land for a solar project seemed to manifest as neighbors complained about the pervasive dust invading their homes and vehicles.

Fields of Panels, Not Crops

About 445 acres of Duttlinger’s farmland now host a sea of solar panels. 

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An aerial image showing a large solar farm with rows of blue panels next to a green, open farmland

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Reuters reveals that this transformation was part of a lease agreement with Dunns Bridge Solar LLC, a move that Duttlinger now regrets as he watches fertile soil blow away, leaving behind barren sand.

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Neighbor's Grievance: Who Cleans the Mess?

The dust didn’t just settle on Duttlinger’s conscience; it swept into his neighbor’s lives, too. 

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Close-up view of solar panels mounted on metal frames above a ground covered with dry, golden grass

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Queries piled up, with frustrated locals demanding to know who would take responsibility for the mess that once was nutrient-rich topsoil.

Broken Promises of Land Stewardship

Despite assurances in the lease about minimizing damage and preserving topsoil, the reality was starkly different. 

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A field of bare, brown earth ready for the installation of a solar panel array, with greenery in the background

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Subcontractors drastically altered the landscape, compromising the land’s integrity and Duttlinger’s trust in the project’s management.

A Barren Landscape

The damage seems irreversible, with large patches under the panels now resembling a desert more than farmland. 

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Bare, uneven terrain with tracks and a backdrop of lush trees, suggesting recent clearing for development

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This stark transformation has left Duttlinger skeptical about the land’s agricultural future.

A Renewable Energy Giant's Response

Facing the degradation of his land, Duttlinger reached out to NextEra Energy Resources, the parent company behind the project. 

A promotional image with a close-up of a wind turbine and the text 'This is our era. This is America's ENERGY ERA' in bold green letters, with the NextEra Energy logo

Source: NextEra Energy/Facebook

The response was a vague promise to assess the situation at the contract’s end—decades in the future, Reuters reports.

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The Allure of Solar in the Midwest

The Midwest’s expansive fields and affordable land rents are drawing solar projects in droves, fueled by both state and federal incentives. 

Two technicians in hard hats and safety glasses carrying a new solar panel towards an installation in a desert setting

Source: NextEra Energy/Facebook

But at what cost to the agricultural value of these lands?

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High Stakes for High-Quality Soil

Some of Duttlinger’s now-panel-covered plots were among the most productive according to USDA classifications. 

An expansive view of rolling farmland at sunset, with varying shades of green fields, farm buildings, and a tree line in the distance

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This shift from food to energy production poses questions about priorities and sustainability.

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Financial Temptation vs. Farming Tradition

Solar leases offer substantial rent, tempting farmers with immediate financial gain. 

A close-up view of shiny blue solar panels installed on a corrugated metal roof with a clear blue sky in the background

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, this shift could sideline generations of farming tradition, exchanging crop rows for rows of solar panels.

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Innovations and Alternatives in Solar Farming

Not all solar developments spell doom for agriculture. 

An aerial perspective of long rows of solar panels installed in a field, casting shadows on the ground, with a dirt road running alongside

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some projects design their layouts to allow for crops between panels or use the land to graze livestock, blending energy production with agricultural activity.

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The Debate Over Farmland Usage

As solar farms sprawl across America’s heartland, agricultural experts warn of long-term impacts to food production capabilities. 

A serene rural landscape at dusk featuring a farm with silos and barns, bare trees in the foreground, and rolling hills in the background

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The reduction in available high-quality farmland could be a blow to both local and national agricultural economies.

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Energy Needs vs. Food Security

The drive towards renewable energy is clashing with the need for food security. 

Three black and white cows in a vibrant green pasture, one standing and looking towards the camera, another lying down, with farm buildings and trees in the background

Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the U.S. planning significant solar expansions to meet environmental goals, the balance between cultivating crops and harvesting sunlight remains delicate.

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