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Projects such as solar farms should be broader in scope

March 11, 2013
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

You can hardly pick up a newspaper or watch a news show without reading something about the environment or the ominous question: How are we going to feed 9 billion people?

You will hear such buzzwords as greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration or green energy. Then there is the seeming contradiction that is the solar “farm” that is springing up along Roxbury Road and Sharpsburg Pike.

Am I against solar energy? Not at all. I think it has its place, but certainly not taking up cropland or when it is so one-dimensional. The acres now covered with low-slung PV panels were once instead pushing up crops such as oats, corn and soybeans. They were cultivated by a common practice known as no-till with occasional tillage.

Both practices have been shown to sequester carbon in the form of soil organic matter. Will a permanent sod under the panels sequester carbon? Maybe, but will that vegetation capture the sun’s energy and produce food of any kind?

To add insult to injury, I read two articles recently involving grazing sheep under solar panels. Imagine my dismay reading the headline, “Solar farm to share 80-acre site with sheep.” Is the site in Washington County? Maryland? Or even the United States?

Sadly, no, quoting from the Cambridge News, “Energy developer TGC Renewables has submitted a planning application to create the site on 82 acres at Hoback Farm, off Cambridge Road, Wimpole, covered in about 55,000 solar panels — with sheep grazing between them.”

Roy Amner, development director, goes on to say: “The land is classed as agricultural and we are not looking to declassify it. The panels would be mounted on trellises. There is a four-and-a-half meter gap between each row of panels and that provides the grazing area for the sheep so they can roam freely.”

Oh, and yes it is Cambridge, England.

The next day, I read another article from an English farm periodical, Farmers Weekly. The headline said it all: “Small sheep breeds solution to solar land use.”

This article was aimed at existing solar farms where adequate space was not part of the design. However, the situation referenced in the previous article, producing food, in this case, lamb was part of the initial design.

Are the British just that much more forward thinking?

What I think is food production is closer to the front of the British way of thinking. They remember being hungry during World War II and they are an island of fixed landmass.

Some think you will never run out of land, which is a common fallacy in American thinking. Others think about something as simple as grazing sheep in a solar field.

While it might be too late for the project adjacent to the state prison complex, I hope someone out there will read this or other articles and make sure future projects are broader in scope. Nine billion people are counting on such a mind-set.

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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