Bills would avert farmland problems related to commercial solar projects; IFB supports

Commercial solar energy developers would be required to enter into a mitigation agreement, with the goal of protecting landowners.

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Proposed legislation would require an agricultural impact mitigation agreement (AIMA) for new solar projects. Illinois already requires AIMAs for commercial wind energy projects. AIMAs are often used for other energy projects, such as pipelines and transmission lines. (Photo courtesy of USDA)

By Kay Shipman

Legislation introduced in the Illinois House and Senate would address issues and avert farmland problems stemming from development of commercial solar energy projects. As a state legislative priority, Illinois Farm Bureau supports SB 2591, sponsored by Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, and HB 4651, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville.

The legislation proposes to require commercial solar energy developers to enter into an agricultural impact mitigation agreement (AIMA) with the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA). The goal is to protect landowners and assure land impacted by construction and deconstruction be properly restored.

“These (commercial solar projects) are coming in quickly,” Meier said. “Everything is different in their contracts. The AIMA will help provide some restoration standards for landowners and help make sure there is financial protection for decommissioning the projects.”

Meier estimated 57 solar development companies are working in 64 counties. 

Bennett noted his district includes renewable energy supporters on the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus as well as family farmers who want to ensure farmland is protected. “Both sides have an interest” in solar energy development, he said.

IDOA offers statewide expertise and “a wealth of knowledge and experience developing AIMAs,” said Bill Bodine, IFB associate director of state legislation.

Bodine noted Illinois already requires AIMAs for commercial wind energy projects. AIMAs are often used for other energy projects, such as pipelines and transmission lines.

IDOA uses AIMAs to set minimum wind energy and utility construction standards on agricultural land, while landowners can negotiate additional easement requirements for their property.

Bennett said an AIMA would provide confidence in a solar energy project that a developer can do business in the state and put financial protections in place for decommissioning.

A solar energy AIMA would not impact a county government’s authority to regulate the siting of a commercial solar facility or establish more restrictive standards. Likewise, an AIMA would not interfere with more restrictive standards already in place, according to Bodine.

In December, county Farm Bureau delegates passed new policy supporting statewide standards for farmland preservation and protection of private property rights and public health and safety, while allowing reasonable development of commercial solar energy projects.

Meier said he approached IFB, IDOA, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Commerce Commission and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce to discuss issues related to solar energy development.

“We don’t want some nasty cleanup site when it’s done,” Meier said. “We want productive Illinois farmland. It (AIMA legislation) seemed the right thing to do, to get everyone talking.”

Get to know AIMAs 

AIMAs set minimum construction standards on agricultural land to address issues and avert problems, now and in the future, caused by renewable energy and utility projects.

Through AIMAs, IDOA works to avert damage to agricultural land and losses of crops and livestock. Even with an AIMA, landowners may negotiate additional easement requirements for their property.

AIMAs cover not only equipment placement, land restoration and damage repair after construction, but also where crews and equipment access sites and construction during wet weather. If crews damage drainage tile, an AIMA stipulates how the damage is to be repaired. Any conservation structures, such as terraces, and conservation practices are accounted for and damages must be repaired.

AIMAs ensure livestock doesn’t get loose when construction occurs in pastures.

AIMAs also stipulate landowners receive advance notice before crews come on their property and toll-free telephone numbers to report inferior work.

Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.

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