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Are solar farms really a threat to food farms?

Sprawling solar farms have raised concerns that renewable energy will harm food production in Canada — including in Alberta, where the province has paused approval of any large wind or solar projects.

In August, the Government of Alberta announced the moratorium would last until Feb. 29, 2024. At the time, it cited concerns about land use and reclamation, specifically the impact on agricultural, recreational and Crown land. 

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith told CBC’s What on Earth in an interview in September: “We cannot be putting massive amounts of solar panels on prime agriculture land. That’s one of the things that we’ve heard loud and clear.”

She added, “These are taking up acres and acres and acres of prime farmland in some cases. And so we want to make sure they’re on marginal lands.” 

But how much “prime farmland” would those projects take? Here’s a closer look.

LISTEN | Alberta Premier Danielle Smith shares her views on energy and climate policy: 

What On Earth15:38Danielle Smith on Ottawa, oil and gas emissions, and why Alberta should be ‘the last barrel in the market’

Featured VideoAlberta’s premier is a big booster of the province’s oil and gas industry, and a harsh critic of Ottawa’s climate policies. So after Steven Guilbeault called her out on What on Earth last week, she offered to come on the show to have her say. In a feature interview, Laura Lynch asks Premier Smith about pushing back on federal emissions targets, putting a moratorium on new renewables, and why she champions fossil fuel production after a summer of climate reckoning.

Widespread concerns

In Alberta, similar worries had previously been expressed by rural municipal politicians in Alberta and the federal Conservative Party’s agriculture critic, John Barlow, MP for the southern Alberta riding of Foothills.

Elsewhere, Jessica Nixon, director of economic development for the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, who is also a cattle and grain farmer, wrote in an opinion piece on the Clean50 website in March that not enough consideration is given to the agricultural value of land being used for solar, and that poses a threat to farmland.

Such concerns aren’t unique to Canada, says Sara Hastings-Simon, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who studies energy transition and public policy. “You’ve certainly heard it discussed in other countries.”

And she can understand why.

“It’s striking, right? When you’re standing in front of one of these solar farms. They are large on a human scale.”

WATCH | Alberta pauses all large new renewable energy projects: 

are solar farms really a threat to food farms

Alberta pauses all new large renewable energy projects

3 months ago

Duration 2:01

Featured VideoThe Alberta government is pausing the approval of new large renewable energy projects for nearly seven months in response to concerns about developing wind and solar projects on agricultural land.

Where Alberta’s solar is now

Is solar really taking up lots of prime farmland in Alberta? Ian Urquhart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta, looked into the question in The Tyee last month.

He found most solar projects approved in Alberta between 2019 and 2023 are on farmland rated as “severe or worse” for crop production. (Farmland is rated based on limitations such as low fertility, rockiness or steep slopes.)

One project approved this past July, Creekside Solar Project in Leduc, is expected to occupy 127 acres of high-value “Class 2” agricultural land. However, Urquhart said that’s just “0.03 per cent of the best agricultural land in the country,” according to the developer, and sheep farmers and crop producers are interested in farming between the solar panels, a concept known as agrivoltaics.

Sheep in the foreground, including one looking at the camera, with solar panels in the background.
Sheep graze at a solar farm at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., on Sept. 24, 2021. Combining solar generation and food farming is known as agrivoltaics. (Heather Ainsworth/The Associated Press)

Alberta’s future solar needs

With renewable energy growing, however, more land would be needed. That’s something Hastings-Simon has looked into, specifically for Alberta. 

The Alberta Electrical System Operator projects that Alberta would need to increase its solar generation capacity from the current 1.3 GW to 5.2 GW through 2041 in order to make the provincial grid net-zero emissions by 2035, as required by the federal government.

In a policy brief published last month, Hastings-Simon calculated that new generation would require 38,000 acres (154 square kilometres). While that sounds like a lot, it’s just 0.08 per cent of agricultural land in the province — “less than a tenth of one per cent,” Hastings-Simon said. 

Her reaction when she saw that was “definitely surprise,” she said.

The calculations showed that even if all new solar farms were built only on the best, irrigated farmland, they would still only use three per cent of that kind of farmland.

WATCH | Federal budget includes plan for clean energy grid: 

are solar farms really a threat to food farms 2

Federal budget includes plan for clean energy grid

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Featured VideoThis week’s federal budget revealed the Liberal Party’s plans to provide clean energy from coast to coast. But making that a reality will be a massive undertaking, logistically and politically.

What a solar future would mean Canada-wide

As for the rest of the country, another group of Canadian researchers published their calculations about the land needed for renewable energy just this month, in the peer-reviewed journal Renewable Energy.

The research team included Keena Trowell, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., who wondered how much land would be needed to transition all energy — including electrical generation, transportation, heating and manufacturing — to renewables.

They decided to look at the “worst-case scenario,” land-wise, where all new renewable energy would be solar.

That would takes up a lot of land compared to, say, wind turbines and wouldn’t generate much power in the winter, when lots of energy is needed for heating. That would require longer-term energy storage and some energy — up to a quarter — would be lost in the process. 

In this scenario, the researchers estimated we would need a minimum of nearly five times the electrical generation we have now, and about 36,100 square kilometres of land would need to be covered in solar panels. While that sounds like a lot, the researchers found it’s only 5.6 per cent of the land used in Canada for agriculture.

Solar panels in the foreground with a small town in the background
Solar panels are installed on a coal mixing hall of the former coal mine Auguste Victoria in Marl, Germany, Sept. 7, 2023. Former fossil fuel production sites are one option for building solar farms. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

Where solar panels could go

The researchers note that putting renewable energy on brownfield industrial sites has already been encouraged by Government of Alberta policy, and there’s a lot of land that has been developed for oil and gas extraction “that is sitting there and can’t really be used for anything else,” Trowell said.

“Well, what if we just slapped a bunch of solar panels there?”

Her study found that there is more than enough of this type of land suitable for solar projects to decarbonize all of Canada’s energy needs with solar combined with storage in carbon-neutral fuels. You wouldn’t need to dig into agricultural land at all.

The study also suggested built-up land, such as rooftops, as an option. Decarbonizing just the electricity grid (instead of all energy) would cover only 16 per cent of this built-up land.

Hastings-Smith said landfills are another great option, as they’re also close to where electricity is being used.

WATCH | Alberta’s largest solar roof unveiled in Leduc: 

are solar farms really a threat to food farms 4

Alberta’s largest solar roof project unveiled in Leduc

7 years ago

Duration 1:02

Featured VideoThe Leduc Recreation Centre is now covered with 3,622 solar panels, making it the biggest rooftop solar installation in the province.

Still, farmland might be easier

In her article, Saskatchewan farmer Jessica Nixon noted that three solar projects developed in Saskatchewan in 2021 and 2022 were developed on 360 acres of previously cultivated land. That’s because they were flat, close to a grid interconnection point, and the landowners were willing to lease the land.

Nixon argued that farming is high risk, and some farmers can make twice as much money while shouldering a much lower risk by leasing their land out for solar farms.

Hasting-Simon thinks it’s unlikely that owners of the highest-value agricultural land would put solar there, but notes that even if they did, there would be lots of that land left.

She added that a lot of agricultural land is already being used to produce energy, not food, growing corn and wheat to produce ethanol as fuel for cars.

If the concern is a land use perspective, then we should be thinking about how to accelerate electrification of transportation and convert land that’s being used to grow fuel … into solar PV instead,” said Hastings-Simon, as that’s far more efficient.

Solar panels under cloudy skies on scrubby ground.
Solar panels pictured at the Michichi Solar project near Drumheller, Alta., in July. Most large solar installations in Alberta are already on lands that have severely limited farming potential, due to factors such as soil quality and rockiness. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“We need to be concerned about local land use and siting and environmental impacts,” Hastings-Simon said. “But when it comes to the question of do we have enough agricultural land in the province to build out solar, I think there’s a very clear answer which is yes.”

Trowell said the results of her study are good news. 

“Canada has enough renewable potential and land that can’t be used for anything else to start to move this transition,” she said. “It’s going to take a massive investment, but we have to think about it as an investment because it will pay dividends down the line.”

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