Officials considering solar use of agricultural land

Jan 29, 2019

Dartmouth farmers and agricultural experts see a bright future for solar on farmland, as a proposal to let farmers build solar arrays over their crops is being considered.

The Planning Board and Agricultural Commission met Monday night in a joint meeting to discuss the idea more generally and to shape future proposals around agricultural solar.

The focus on solar came to be following last year’s a proposal to allow struggling cranberry farmers to build solar panels over their crops. A solar company, NextSun Energy, had drafted a citizens’ petition article for the 2018 Fall Town Meeting allowing the idea as part of a state program, but withdrew the proposal after facing confusion and criticism from the Planning Board in the months leading up to the meeting. 

Members of both boards agreed that it was important for “dual use projects” to maintain agricultural production. What sunk last year’s proposal was the revelation that the solar development company planned to purchase farmland from a cranberry farmer in town.

The Planning Board emphasized the need to establish some measure to ensure that the dual use land would continue to function as farms.

“This is more of a venture where the solar is just providing a form of revenue,” Sue Giuducci of the Agricultural Commission said.

Derek Christianson, another member of the commission, said that the group has been focusing less on the specifics of the failed proposal and more on the future of agricultural solar production.

“The concern from the agricultural community is we don’t want to create a close-minded nature to what the future might hold,” Christianson said.

Christianson described developing technology like greenhouses that simultaneously function as solar panels while letting light through, and ways of generating solar energy on land also used for grazing.

“There’s no question in my mind that this board or any future board would be open to any suggestions that come before them,” Planning Board Chairman John Sousa said. “I don’t think anybody’s shutting the door on it.”

Sousa did note that a concern the board has heard from residents is about the aesthetics of solar arrays.

“We’ve got a loud and clear signal from the voters that they’re not interested in that industrial look in residential zones,” Sousa said.

Fred Dabney, a member of both the Agricultural Commission and the Massachusetts Agricultural Lands Preservation Committee, said that allowing dual use of agricultural land is a way to support and protect farmers.

“There are a lot of farms that are having difficulty in making ends meet,” Dabney said. “One of the opportunities that I hope that exists for all farms is to allow them to have an opp to offset some of their costs by developing solar arrays.”

Sarah Stearns, an environmental specialist and consultant for NextSun Energy, spoke briefly in support of dual use programs.

When, or if, NextSun will propose another citizen’s petition is not known.