Session 8: Balancing Forest and Farmland Protection with Renewable Energy Development

Please reach out to individual speakers if you are interested in viewing PowerPoint presentations from this session. Due to limited staffing, we are unable to post the presentations to the website.

Morning Session – 8:30AM-10:30AM
Androscoggin/Aroostook Room, First Floor

Session Co-Chairs
Thacher Carter
, Maine Farmland Trust
Cheryl Daigle, Sebasticook Regional Land Trust

Protecting and stewarding forests and farmland is critical to ensure that Maine has the land base to grow our agricultural economy and support a robust local and regional food system and source of wood products. With renewable energy development expanding across the state and intent on building a more climate resilient future, strategies that balance this development with the need to protect forests and farmland are becoming increasingly important. A comprehensive look at proposals for renewable energy transmission lines and trends showing fast-paced, shifting land use to solar power infrastructure is necessary to avoid irreversible impacts to waterways, fish and wildlife habitat, and natural resource-dependent rural economies. Session presenters will discuss current trends in land use related to this topic and strategies that local farm and forest advocates, municipal officials, and conservation groups can explore to minimize the impacts of solar development and build out of our electric grid on Maine’s natural resources and rural character.

Session Schedule

8:30AM – 8:50AM

We Can Have It All – Developing Renewable Energy While Protecting Natural Resources

Sarah Haggerty
Maine Audubon

Most Mainers understand the very real threat climate change poses to our native wildlife species and their habitats, as well as the uncertainty it is bringing to our traditional fishing and agricultural industries in the state. To combat these changes, and to prevent the worst climate predictions from being realized, we must rapidly make the transition from fossil fuel energy sources to renewable ones like solar and wind.  But like any new development on the landscape, renewable energy development projects have the potential to infringe on high value wildlife habitat and agricultural lands. They don’t have to. For most wildlife species, the effects of climate change and habitat loss are the main drivers of population decline, and climate change is driving an increased need for locally grown foods. It isn’t practical to try to save wildlife and agriculture from climate change by destroying wildlife habitats and agricultural soils in the process.  There are many tools we can use to discourage development of land with high value natural resources and there are ways to reduce impacts when these lands are developed. We will share regulatory, financial, and other creative mechanisms that can be used to reduce the loss of high value wildlife habitat and agricultural lands in this time of rapid renewable energy source development.

8:55AM – 9:15AM

Renewable Energy and Land Conservation – Can They Play Well Together in the Sandbox?

Mark Zankel, Holly Noyes, Lindsay Bourgoine
ReVision Energy

Governor Mills has announced an accelerated goal of 100% clean energy by 2040. Today Maine stands at 51% renewable energy, including >8% from solar. Locally-generated solar energy is a proven and cost-effective technology, supports local landowners, businesses and municipalities, and provides local jobs.  

Farm and forest landowners can help meet the needs of their working farm, working forest, community and the environment by hosting solar arrays. At the same time, there is vigorous discussion and policy debate in Maine around land use and the expansion of renewable energy. Land trusts and natural resource agencies recognize the existential threat posed by climate change and the need for local clean energy, yet can find it challenging to navigate trade-offs, determine acceptable impacts, and address donor concerns in the context of their missions.  

ReVision Energy is a Maine-based, 100% employee-owned company that has been developing solar and other clean energy projects for 20 years. We will discuss how solar developers work with local landowners and communities to evaluate lands for solar. What lands are suitable for solar and why? How do landowner goals come into play? What are the biggest barriers to Maine’s clean energy transition? How do we ensure there is room on the landscape for community-scale solar while avoiding and minimizing impacts to high-conservation-value lands and waters? At ReVision, we believe that land conservation, viable farming and forestry, natural resource protection, and solar energy can and must co-exist.

9:20AM – 9:40AM

Renewable Energy in the Town of Unity From Precontact to the Present: Challenges, Adaptations, and the Problem of Ecological Integrity

Joshua Abram Kercsmar
Unity Environmental University 

This presentation surveys the historic interplay between renewable energy and economic development in Maine, with a particular focus on the history of Unity. Through much of the precontact and colonial period, trees and plants that converted sunlight into food nurtured local economies. Even when farmers transformed landscapes through clearcutting, as they did in Unity starting in the mid-1700s, their destructive practices benefited local milling and tanning industries. In the 1830s through the early 1900s, outside capital pushed Unity to rely more exclusively on another solar-powered enterprise: agriculture. The sun nourished grasses that fed cows, which in turn provided milk that fueled a local dairy industry. But American agriculture’s postwar turn toward factory farming weakened the bonds of these community-based enterprises. Many who bought farmland no longer depended on the ecology of grass, cattle, and sunlight. They did, however, participate in a culture that consumed ever-larger amounts of electricity. Development firms responded by building large grid-connected solar arrays on fields and timberlands. Recently, one company proposed connecting a 170+ turbine wind generation plant to the ISO-NE grid via a high-impact transmission line that would run through 41 municipalities – a proposal that prompted a slew of local moratoriums and ordinances. In a departure from Unity’s past, such projects raised the specter of ecological destruction in the absence of municipal benefits. 

Ultimately, then, my purpose is to address two questions: How and why did municipal energy flows change over time? What responsibility do towns have to protect the places that once defined them?

9:45AM – 10:05AM

Municipal Strategies for Balancing Solar Development and Farmland Protection

Thacher Carter
Maine Farmland Trust

Maine Farmland Trust believes that solar energy generation and agriculture can co-exist in Maine in a mutually beneficial manner as long as solar development is sited in ways that minimize impacts to agricultural resources. Protecting and stewarding farmland is critical for ensuring that Maine has the land base to grow our agricultural economy and support a robust local and regional food system. With solar development expanding across the state, strategies that balance support for solar energy production with the need to protect farmland are becoming increasingly important. Through thoughtful planning and policy development, towns can play a critical role in balancing support for solar energy generation with support for agricultural production and resilience. Discussion will include an overview of why balanced solar siting matters and what strategies municipal officials and local advocates can explore to minimize the impacts of solar development on agricultural resources.

About the Session Chairs

Cheryl Daigle is the executive director of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, focused on protecting working woodlands, farms and wildlands in the Sebasticook River watershed. She previously led community outreach efforts for the Penobscot River Restoration Project and served as the editor of Northern Woodlands, and has worked with a variety of conservation organizations in Maine and throughout New England.