It’s no secret our changing climate is impacting communities across the globe. In the US, which is the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, agricultural land and the landowners and farmers who oversee it are feeling it firsthand. At the same time, as renewable energy gains momentum across the U.S., new business models in solar, wind, energy storage, and beyond are providing an assortment of opportunities for landowners with underutilized land to give it new life.
As of July 2022, “more than 32 percent of land in western states was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.” Drought cost California agriculture alone $1.7 billion in 2022, with an estimated 12,000 agricultural jobs lost. Additionally, heat waves can cause lasting harm to crop yields.
While continuing to find ways to feed our communities (especially now that there are 8 billion people on the planet) is imperative, farmers and landowners have another important role to play beyond producing food and crops in our changing climate. And it’s one that can be of great benefit to not just the planet, but themselves as well.
By working in partnership with renewable energy developers, landowners can lease their land to host a variety of renewable energy projects, while reaping a range of benefits.
Here are some of the key benefits for landowners:
- Income: Maintaining land, especially large swaths of it, can be expensive. Renewable energy developers are seeking land and paying lucrative lease payments for long time horizons. Renewable projects allow for landowners to earn passive income, in some cases, up to nearly 30 years.
- Legacy: Land ownership is seen as a right of passage in the U.S., or a part of the classic American Dream. Wars were fought over it and in many situations, it gets passed down from generation to generation. Renewable projects allow for landowners to maintain the legacy of their land (and control of it), while keeping it in the family for generations to come.
- Community: By leasing land for renewable energy projects, landowners aren’t just helping create a cleaner environment for their community and access to less expensive energy for residents, but in some cases, they are also creating jobs for their neighbors.
- Climate: Landowners throughout the U.S. have an opportunity and the power to make the country a leader in the clean energy transition while creating a more habitable planet by providing the land necessary to host the multitude of renewable energy projects necessary to meet our energy demand.
- Leave no trace: Unlike oil and gas extraction that can wreak irreversible havoc on land, renewable projects can return land to its original state after decommission (when the project ends). And in some cases, renewable energy projects can work concurrently with other land use, including farming.
Examples of land use for climate change mitigation projects for landowners to consider include:
Solar & Wind Energy
Perhaps the two most well known sources of renewable energy – solar and wind energy – offer an abundance of opportunities for landowners throughout the US and are an easy, low-impact way to generate extra income.
There are dozens of renewable energy developers across the country, like Pivot Energy, Nexamp, and Freestone Renewables, who bring a local, community-first approach to wind (and solar) development. They help landowners assess if their land is a good match for a solar or wind project and if so, will help through every step of the process. And in many cases, this includes the ability to continue farming practices on the land.
On the solar side, agrivoltaic energy consists of using land for both solar energy and agricultural projects, where both solar panels and crops can exist cohesively on the same surface. The Department of Energy recently announced an $8 million investment in agrivoltaic solar energy research projects across six states and the District of Columbia, designed to enable more collaboration and economic opportunities among farmers, rural communities, and the solar industry. The funding also aims to reduce barriers to utility-and community-scale solar energy deployment while maximizing benefits for farmers and local communities.
Studies not only estimate that the electricity generated by solar panels can increase the economic value of agrivoltaic farms by more than 30%, but they also suggest that if 1% of arable land was dedicated to produce solar energy, it would be possible to offset the world’s energy demand. It’s a win for everyone.
Energy storage is an important technology in creating a clean energy economy, as it allows for electricity to be produced and consumed at different times. For landowners looking for new sources of long-term income, hosting energy storage (which can also be paired with solar) on underutilized or repurposed land is a great option.
Battery storage modules closely resemble shipping containers and are no louder than the average home air conditioning system. Additionally, these projects typically require no upfront costs to landowners and like many renewable projects, allow for land to return to its pre-development state upon completion.
Companies like Convergent, which is the largest independent developer, owner, and operator of energy storage assets in North America, partners with landowners on these projects and can even make the units inconspicuous by painting them to blend into certain landscapes.
Every living tree absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. At scale, this can have an immensely positive impact in fighting climate change. That is, if we grow and maintain large, carbon-rich trees.
For landowners with forests, they may consider logging for timber or they can opt to sell carbon offsets on what are called voluntary carbon markets, instead. Companies like NCX incentivize landowners to postpone timber harvests and sell these carbon offsets. This helps landowners still generate income from their land while also capturing carbon.
While there are many carbon offset programs to choose from, not all are created equal. In this instance, we’re talking solely about forestry projects like the one referenced above with NCX. As with all renewable projects, eligibility varies based on a myriad of factors that can be determined in initial discussions with developers.
As one of the many forms of regenerative agriculture practices, agroforestry uses agriculture and forestry practices to create profitable and sustainable farms, ranches, and woodlands by diversifying production systems. It’s also a key way to sequester carbon. By adding trees to cropland, two to eight tons of carbon per acre can be sequestered a year. Best of all, it’s a practice that’s applicable throughout both rural and urban communities in all regions of the country.
Integrating things like fruit, nut, and timber trees with animal or crop farming systems, and using strategies such as alley cropping, silvopasture, windbreaks, and riparian buffers, farmers can increase the profitability of their land while improving their local environment and communities.
Companies like Propagate Ag help farmers become more resilient and earn great returns by providing software and farm services to aid in the transition to agroforestry. While agroforestry is never a quick “fix” given trees, unlike crops, take a long time to mature before they can really fulfill their purpose in the system, it can bring a variety of benefits to one’s land.
In summary, while the changing climate is forcing many landowners to reevaluate and rethink the future of their land, there is no shortage of opportunities to join the clean energy economy and reap the benefits of doing so.