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Commentary: Master plans, early conversations best way to address large-scale solar


Harmony Fierke-Gmazel (AICP) is an educator for Michigan State University Extension

Michigan communities that embrace clean, renewable energy like solar create a healthier, more sustainable future for their residents. But the regulation of solar developments can be a large task to undertake. Luckily, Michigan State University Extension offers many resources for renewable energy developments.

There are several reasons why utilities and developers are interested in investing in Michigan, including the proximity and capacity of our existing electrical grid, abundance of solar radiation and land availability.

Yes, Michigan receives adequate sunlight to produce solar electricity.

At MSU Extension, I’ve advised on several solar planning and zoning policy projects. One of the best approaches is a single or multi-jurisdictional master plan that incorporates renewable energy policies. Secondly, several Michigan communities should take steps to discuss the benefits and concerns of large-scale solar with residents, partners and leaders. Solar projects don’t have to be controversial if communities make the effort to engage the public in a meaningful way and develop a master plan that takes all solar-related issues and best practices into account.

Another best practice is to identify areas that are appropriate for solar developments and then incorporate solar on those properties so that it preserves and promotes Michigan’s agricultural sector.

You can do this three ways:

  1. The use of marginal lands
  2. Co-locate solar panels with agricultural activities
  3. Recognize a new solar development as a “special use” that doesn’t require a change in zoning

Marginal land is ideal for the placement of solar because it is not being farmed, not part of a valuable wetland system, has less than prime soil or is not being irrigated for crops. These areas should be prioritized for solar panel placement.

The goal of solar and agricultural co-location is to create a beneficial relationship between the two land uses. Livestock grazing, row crops and specialty crops can exist under and around solar panels if appropriately designed. Also, the growth of pollinator-friendly vegetation is a critical part of co-locating solar with agriculture. These plantings rejuvenate the soil for better post-solar farming and provide a source of food for beneficial insects that manage pests in neighboring farm fields.

Lastly, local governments should consider authorizing “special use permits” for future large solar arrays instead of changing the permanent zoning to industrial or commercial. This allows special conditions to be placed on new solar sites such as landscaping, fencing, setbacks and pollinator plantings while preserving the “agricultural” zoning that runs with the land after the lifetime of the solar development.

At MSU Extension, we encourage Michigan communities to plan and work with residents and neighboring communities so they can best balance the environmental, social and economic needs of their communities. New partnerships, updated master plans and detailed zoning ordinances are a few ways Michigan communities can proactively plan and regulate solar developments. The goal is for local officials to have the right tools to ensure solar is viable within our agricultural sector.

For more information or to view past workshops on agricultural solar development, please visit MSUE’s webpage: Shining a Light on Agricultural Solar Development

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