Solar energy is depleting farmlands of their rich soils in the U.S. Midwest. The solar industry is moving into the U.S. Midwest, drawn by cheaper land rents, access to electric transmission, massive federal and state incentives, and the region’s wide-open fields. But Biden’s renewable energy boom risks damaging some of America’s richest soils in key farming states like Indiana. Reuters based the finding on an analysis of federal, state and local data, hundreds of pages of court records; and interviews with more than 100 energy and soil scientists, agricultural economists, farmers and farmland owners, and local, state and federal lawmakers.

According to some agricultural economists and agronomists, taking even small amounts of the best cropland out of production for solar development and damaging valuable topsoil impacts future crop potential in the United States. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department, common solar farm construction practices, including clearing and grading large sections of land, can lead to significant erosion and major runoff of sediment into waterways without proper remediation.

Solar leases in Indiana and surrounding states can offer $900 to $1,500 an acre per year in land rents, with annual rate increases. In comparison, farmland rent for top corn and soybean producers in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa averaged about $251 per acre in 2023, according to USDA data. Farmland Partners Inc, a publicly traded farmland real estate investment trust (REIT) leased about 9,000 acres nationwide to solar firms to obtain profits for its investors; much of that ground was highly productive for farm use.

Some solar project leases are being designed to make it possible to grow crops between panels, while others, like Doral Renewables LLC, are allowing livestock to graze around the panels as part of their land management. Some solar developers argue that in the Midwest, where more than one-third of the U.S. corn crop is used for ethanol production, solar energy is key for powering future electric vehicles.

Solar development comes amid increasing competition for land: In 2023, there were 76.2 million – or nearly 8 percent – fewer acres in farms than in 1997, USDA data shows, as farmland is converted for residential, commercial and industrial use. According to USDA, urban sprawl and development are currently bigger contributors to farmland loss than solar power, citing reports from the Department of Energy and agency-funded research. However, with Biden’s rush towards deploying solar energy and enormous subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act and other laws, land losses to solar power are certain to grow.

Example of Damages to Cropland

In 2019, one Indiana farmer leased about 445 acres of his 1200 acre farm near Whitfield to Dunns Bridge Solar LLC for one of the largest solar developments in the Midwest. According to the solar lease, Dunns Bridge would use “commercially reasonable efforts to minimize any damage to and disturbance of growing crops and crop land caused by its construction activities” outside the project site and “not remove topsoil” from the property itself. Sub-contractors, however, graded the fields to assist in the building of roads and installation of posts and panels, despite warnings that it could make the land more vulnerable to erosion. The crews spread fine sand across large stretches of rich topsoil. Much of the land beneath the panels is now covered in yellow-brown sand, where no plants grow. The Dunns Bridge Solar project is a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources LLC, the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from wind and solar. According to the company, it would review any remedial work needed to the land at the end of its contract in 2073, as per the terms of the lease agreement.

Land Needed for Solar Development

Because land deals are typically private transactions, the amount of cropland currently under solar panels or leased for possible future development is unknown. The United States Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are compiling a database of existing solar facilities across the country. Work on the U.S. Large-Scale Solar Photovoltaic Database began in 2020 and includes data on 3,699 facilities in 47 states and the District of Columbia. As of 2021, around 0.02 percent of all cropland in the continental U.S. intersected in some way with large-scale, ground-based solar panel sites. The total power capacity of the solar operations in the data set represents over 60 gigawatts of electric power capacity. But, between 2021 and 2023, solar capacity had nearly tripled.

Reuters reviewed land use in four Midwestern counties – Pulaski, Starke and Jasper counties in Indiana, and Columbia County in Wisconsin—and found far larger percentages. The counties, representing an area of land slightly bigger than the state of Delaware, are where some of the nation’s largest solar projects are being developed or built. Reuters found the percentage of these counties’ most productive cropland secured by solar and energy companies as of end of 2022 was: 12 percent in Pulaski, 9 percent in Starke, 4 percent in Jasper and 5 percent in Columbia. Doral Renewables, the developer behind the $1.5 billion Mammoth Solar project in Pulaski and Starke counties, does not consider corn or soybean yields in its siting decisions. The company looks at the land’s topography, zoning and closeness to an electrical grid or substation – and tries to avoid wooded areas, ditches and environmentally sensitive areas.  These are also areas typically avoided by farmers.

By 2050, to meet the Biden Administration’s decarbonization targets, the U.S. will need up to 1,570 gigawatts of capacity from solar. According to the Energy Department’s Solar Futures Study, published in 2021, the land needed is not expected to exceed 5 percent of any state’s land area, except the smallest state of Rhode Island, where it could reach 6.5 percent by 2050.

Researchers at American Farmland Trust, a non-profit farmland protection organization, however, found that 83 percent of new solar energy development in the United States will be on farm and ranchland, unless current government policies change. Nearly half would be on the nation’s best land for producing food, fiber, and other crops.


Farmers are leasing land in the Midwest for solar development as the industry moves there due to the government’s massive subsidies, and the area’s cheap rents, access to transmission and wide-open spaces. While the leases provide for damage control, the land is being depleted of its rich top soil as the solar developers build their roads and other infrastructure. Solar power is just one more industry that is removing important farmland from production by offering much higher rents for the land than farmers can afford to pay. Unless government policy lavishing benefits on solar power changes, a large amount of farmland will be converted to solar power to meet Biden’s climate goals, removing it from crop production. Despite the growing number of acres being converted to solar power use, the real issue is the quality of the land coming out of production, and what that means for local economies, state economies and the country’s future abilities to provide food for Americans.

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