Electricians Zach Newton and Bryan Driscoll consult a wiring schematic while installing solar panels at the 38-acre BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s solar energy business is booming, and many farmers are tapping into the market by leasing their fields to solar companies. But a recent task force report is urging a more thoughtful and measured approach to prevent solar panels from gobbling up too much Maine farmland.

The amount of electricity generated from solar panels increased more than tenfold in Maine between 2016 and 2021 thanks, in large part, to policy changes aimed at encouraging renewable energy. But with developers willing to pay landowners a premium for flat and sunny spaces, a growing number of Maine farmers are allowing solar panels to sprout from their soil rather than crops.

With concerns mounting about the proliferation of solar panels on agricultural land, a task force is recommending that Maine use financial incentives or other policies to encourage “dual use” of farmlands.

For instance, solar panels may be mounted higher or spaced farther apart to allow animals to graze or crops to grow underneath and around the solar arrays. The group’s report also calls for tweaking tax policies and streamlining the permitting process for dual-use projects.

Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the state wants to find ways to balance the needs and economic interests of farmers with strategies to achieve Maine’s ambitious climate goals.

In its report issued last month, the Agricultural Solar Stakeholder Group recommended looking to other states but also launching a robust pilot project to explore the best strategies for dual use of farmlands.

“We want farmers to have choices,” Beal told members of two legislative committees. “We want them to be able to make their own decisions. We are not looking to take those opportunities away.”

The group’s report also calls for encouraging larger-scale solar development on land that is marginal or contaminated. Several lawmakers expressed particular interest in locating larger solar arrays on farms found to be contaminated with the forever chemicals known as PFAS, which is a growing problem in Maine.

Beal’s agency as well as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection are at the beginning stages of a multi-year investigation to look for PFAS contamination on land that was previously fertilized with sludge potentially laced with the industrial chemicals.

Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the committee that oversees energy issues, acknowledged that Maine has a relatively finite amount of prime agricultural soils. But Berry said he sees ways to balance the farming and agricultural needs of the state.

“I think this is an incredible opportunity to really get it right, to make sure we are strategic and precise in what we encourage where,” said Berry, co-chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “And I think our committees will have to not work in the usual silos in order to make this happen properly.”

Lawmakers plan to draft legislation based on the task force’s recommendations.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.