Just energy imaginaries? Examining realities of solar development on Pennsylvania's farmland

Kaitlyn Spangler, Erica Smithwick, Stephanie Buechler, Jennifer Baka

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While transitions away from fossil fuels are urgent in a changing climate, the place-based dynamics underlying these renewable energy transitions demonstrate both the potential for shifting historical inequities and the harm of failing to do so. As the cost of solar energy has dropped globally, the socioecological implications of transforming landscapes to host solar photovoltaics (PV) have garnered significant research attention. This study builds on such research by outlining realities of grid-scale solar development on farmland in the US state of Pennsylvania (PA). Through a theoretical grounding in energy justice and land imaginaries, we interviewed farmers and solar stakeholders across PA to better understand why farmers are leasing their land for solar and how these leasing processes balance farmer, stakeholder, and community costs and benefits. We find that farmers enter solar leases for multiple reasons, of which economic gain is a central but insufficient factor. Farmers negotiated lease terms to ensure end-of-life decommissioning, hinged on the hope that the land will be farmable again after solar panels are removed. Yet, as solar was described as a “thirty-year cover crop,” negotiating terms for agrivoltaics was not observed, obscuring the potential for agricultural production to continue during the solar lease. Further, solar developers have utilized option contracts and non-disclosure agreements, reducing the ability of landowners to collectively negotiate for more favorable terms. We situate these findings in both the fraught legacies of energy production in PA, as well as in three main tenets of energy justice, highlighting the caution and hope associated with solar rollouts contributing to just and sustainable energy transitions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103394
JournalEnergy Research and Social Science
StatePublished - Feb 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Nuclear Energy and Engineering
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)

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