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Land use a consideration with issue of solar panels

August 08, 2011
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Going green is a hot topic; everything from compact fluorescent light bulbs to wind turbines to solar panels. Everyone is encouraged to get on board, agriculture included.

Agriculture does utilize a bit of electricity, and many farms throughout the county and valley have participated in energy audits. Several farmers have switched their light bulbs, installed more energy-efficient fans and a few are investigating solar panels.

You might have also seen the solar panels on Hopewell Road and have read about the proposed project at the prison complex south of Hagerstown. You should know upfront I am biased; I am not in favor of taking productive farmland and covering it with solar panels. I don’t care if it is state property; it is not a responsible land use.

Are there options? Yes there are. Most solar farms I have seen are very low to the ground and the vegetation is controlled with chemicals or string trimmers. If we want to be truly “green,” those panels should be at least four feet in the air at their lowest point and sheep can be grazed under them.

I cannot be sure, but I am concerned that the proposed prison complex project will be one of those low-profile projects and they will rely on inmate labor with string trimmers. That is not “green”; those trimmers are not powered by renewable energy, but sheep are.

Let’s think about just how environmentally friendly we can be. Solar panels collect sunlight and produce energy. Under that, grass and other forage grow, also collecting sunlight and producing energy in the form of plant sugars and structural carbohydrates. These plants will also sequester carbon and recycle nutrients. By grazing sheep on this forage, the plant energy is now converted to meat protein and food for humans. Now that is closing the loop and making full use of the sun.

To continue on my “green” agricultural thought process, there are a great number of acres of grass that are mowed unnecessarily. After my recent trip to Europe and seeing the way they harvest highway medians for hay, as well as other green spaces, such as stormwater management areas and other rights of way and vacant lots, we use a lot of fuel for no result other than aesthetics.

Again, imagine grazing or haying some of those open spaces. We have to have a comprehensive plan that includes multifaceted practices. Unless someone can make a quick buck or impose their will on people other than themselves, they are not all that interested in being “green.”

The biggest game of smoke and mirrors is carbon credits. This practice allows people to buy their way out of being responsible.

I am all for being energy wise and agriculture should do its part. I believe it is well-suited to do so if farmers are engaged and empowered to do so.

Jeff Semler is an extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.

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