Updated, 8:20 a.m., 6/5/19
Millions of acres of rural Michigan land could now become solar farms under a new state policy, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office announced Monday.
Land that is currently eligible for tax benefits under the state’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program — about 3.4 million acres, in total — is now eligible for development with companies that have an interest in solar energy production.
The governor said in a statement the shift will ease barriers for companies looking to expand clean power in Michigan.
“My administration understands and is committed to helping meet the growing demand for clean, renewable energy sources in our state,” Whitmer said. “By preparing for and investing in renewable energy, we’re protecting our environment while diversifying revenue options for Michigan farmers and supporting economic development and job creation in a key Michigan industry.”
A workgroup within the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) issued the policy, under which land would also need to be suitable for agricultural use after any solar panels were removed.
“This administrative decision will not result in a loss of usable farmland,” said MDARD Director Gary McDowell in a statement. “The change ensures that Michigan’s farmland is preserved so we can continue to feed our communities while also balancing the need to develop renewable energy sources.”
GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018 vetoed legislation to ensure that smaller, residential solar panels remain tax exempt.*
The new Whitmer administration policy applies to land already enrolled in the MDARD preservation program if the solar development will be part of a larger commercial “solar array,” Whitmer’s office said.
Farm, energy and environmental groups praised the announcement in separate statements on Monday.
“This executive decision is an all around win for Michigan,” said Michigan Environmental Council Agricultural Policy Director Tom Zimnicki. “Not only does this action ensure Michigan residents will continue to benefit from more clean, affordable solar energy, but it also importantly protects pollinators, which are vital to the health of our state’s ecosystems and our agriculture industry.”
Michigan Energy and Innovation Business Council and the environmentalist Michigan League of Conservation Voters also back the measure.
Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-business Association (MABA), said solar will offer farmers “a steady source of tax revenue” while preserving farmland and boosting the rural economy.
Michigan supported 4,169 solar jobs in 2018, about a 1-percent uptick from 2017, according to a recent report from the Solar Foundation, as the Michigan Advance previously reported. The nonprofit tracks the annual number of jobs supported by solar generation across the country.