LANSING – Land under Michigan’s Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program can house solar panels under a change announced Monday by Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Agriculture and Rural Development Director Gary McDowell.

The change was a product of a workgroup McDowell chaired on incorporating renewable energy into farmland preservation.

Those participating in the program would have their PA 116 tax credits deferred while the site hosts solar panels. Those credits would resume once the panels are removed and the site returned to its original condition.

While the panels are installed, the site would also have to meet certain pollinator habitat standards.

“My administration understands and is committed to helping meet the growing demand for clean, renewable energy sources in our state. 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.” Whitmer said in a statement announcing the program. “We want to ensure that the placement of commercial solar panel arrays is consistent with farming operations and the purposes of PA 116, while also providing opportunities for renewable energy.”

McDowell said the decision would not reduce useable farmland.

“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. This is an exciting new opportunity for Michigan’s farmers to diversify while they continue to face challenging circumstances,” he said.

Farm and energy groups hailed the new policy as an opportunity to expand renewable energy.

“Solar energy provides farmers, agribusinesses and farm communities with a steady source of tax revenue while preserving farmland for future generations,” James Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-business Association, said in a statement. “We are pleased with the Whitmer administration’s resolution that will protect farmland while providing opportunities for rural communities to take advantage of the tax revenue, jobs and economic boosts that come with solar installations.”

“MDARD’s decision is a win for farmers, clean energy and the state of Michigan,” Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council President Laura Sherman said. “Thanks to MDARD’s policy, farmers will have access to a new revenue stream, while continuing to preserve their farmland for future agricultural use.”

The Michigan Farm Bureau did not have a position on the new policy but had been part of the workgroup, Andrew Vermeesch, legislative counsel for the group, told Gongwer News Service.

“Farm Bureau has a long history of supporting both renewable as well as farm preservation programs,” Vermeesch said. “Each farmer would have to look to see if this works with their farming plan.”

Environmental groups also praised the policy.

“This executive decision is an all-around win for Michigan,” Michigan Environmental Council Agricultural Policy Director Tom Zimnicki said in a statement. “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. Increased threats to pollinators and recent declines in their populations jeopardizes food production for some of our favorite Michigan crops like apple, blueberry and cherry. The pollinator habitat requirement of this executive decision is an important step for ensuring food production, and hopefully serves as a model to other states for how renewable energy, pollinator habitat and agriculture can coexist for the betterment of everyone.”

This story was published by Gongwer News Service.