by Julia Bayly
October 16, 2021
There is a finite number of acres in Maine that can produce crops and support agricultural farms. Only 13 percent of the state is suitable farmland, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
In recent years, those acres have been targeted by solar farm developers. The most desirable land for large solar farms is at least 25 acres, flat, open to the sun, easily accessible by good roads and near existing power lines.
In other words, land that is perfect for farming.
Now a group — formed as a result of legislation last summer — will make policy recommendations that balance the need to protect Maine’s current and future farmland against the need to develop sources of renewable energy.
There’s no official data on how much farmland has already been converted to solar farms. In 2020, 88 percent of the 335 solar farm pre-applications submitted to the Maine Natural Areas Program included high-quality farmland. That’s a potential loss of 14,949 acres of Maine’s nearly 2.9 million acres of available farmland.
This land — referred to as prime farmland, or soils of statewide importance — has soil with the best physical and chemical characteristics to produce food, animal feed and forage crops. The designation is determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The 2020 numbers from the Maine Natural Areas Program do not include acreage for solar developments of fewer than 20 acres, since those do not need to go through the same state permitting process. It also only represents the total acreage reviews, not those approved for development.
“Yes, we have seen farms lost to solar development [and] more data is needed to accurately track and capture what has been developed and what’s in the pipeline,” said Nancy McBrady, director of the Maine Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.
The group tasked with making policy recommendations — the Agriculture Solar Stakeholders Group — includes state officials, farmers, municipal officials and representatives of the solar industry, and was created by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Governor’s Energy Office. It grew from the state’s four-year climate action plan that looks at how Maine should address climate change immediately.
Part of the action plan both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and increases local food production.
In some cases, those two goals have found themselves at odds with each other.
New Gloucester farmer Carl Wilcox has lost count of the number of inquiries he’s gotten from solar developers interested in his land.
“I’m kind of a small-time farmer here and I’ve gotten multiple inquiries about putting up a solar farm on my land,” Wilcox said.
“What the solar farms are after is farmland right next to the road. They want the land that is easiest to get to and develop and that can be some of the best farmland.”
Wilcox said most of the inquiries he’s gotten have come by mail and have ended up in his wastebasket. But he said he has hung on to the last one he got, though he has not decided how or if he will proceed with the request to place a solar array on his property.
Wilcox fears that the more prime farmland and important soils are taken out of food production, the more farmers will have to rely on more marginal land that is less ideal for crops.
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Maine’s campaign finance watchdog rejected a request from Central Maine Power Co. allies to investigate a top opponent of their $1 billion corridor project over a large contribution from a political group she runs to a nonprofit she also runs.
The Maine Ethics Commission called a snap meeting on Friday afternoon to handle the complaint from the CMP-run political committee Clean Energy Matters accusing Sandra Howard, who leads the nonprofit Say No to NECEC, of failing to register as a political action committee after records showed the group received $140,000 from an affiliated group.
The 4-1 vote of the commission means it will not investigate the anti-corridor side during the last three weeks of a referendum campaign that has drawn more than $60 million in spending. Opponents are aiming to kill the project by passing Question 1 on the Nov. 2 ballot, while CMP backs a no vote.
Records filed with the commission show that Say No to NECEC, which does not have to disclose donors or spending, received $140,000 from No CMP Corridor on Sept. 23 for signs and entrance fees to fairs. The latter group, which is also directed by Howard, got most of its money from a separate committee funded by power companies that will lose shares of the regional power market if the hydropower corridor is built.
Clean Energy Matters lawyer Newell Augur argued the payment could be seen as supporting efforts to influence opinions on Question 1, insinuating the money could have come from the committee funded by fossil fuel companies. He requested the Maine Ethics Commission immediately investigate whether Say No to NECEC must file with the state as a political group.
Continue reading at https://bangordailynews.com/2021/10/15/politics/head-of-maines-ethi...
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