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Solar systems on fertile ground?


The competition for limited space in Germany is increasing. Farmers criticize that they are losing parts of their fields because photovoltaic investors can pay more rent than farmers.

Johanna Wahl

Christoph Kern grows grain, sugar beets, wine and energy crops for biogas plants in his fields in Rheinhessen. But his agriculture has faced competition and he will lose some of his arable land. Because operators of solar parks can pay significantly more rent than he does.

And so several of his landlords will probably not renew their contracts with him. Kern knows that you can make money with renewable energies. “Projectors offer a rent of 3,000 to 4,000 euros per hectare,” says the farmer from Gensingen near Bingen. “As a farmer, I can’t pay my landlords that much.”

Matthias Balsiger will also lose parts of his arable land in Commen in the Hunsrück because some of his private landlords want to lease their land to photovoltaic investors at much higher prices in the future. Therefore he will lose around seven hectares of land. So far, the farmer has been growing hay on it, which he feeds to his cattle. “The investors can pay more than twenty times as much in rent as I do,” says Balsiger. “As a food producer, that makes me think.”

Municipalities in a quandary

The municipality ofKommen itself also intends to lease municipal land that was previously used for agriculture to solar park operators. “As a small town in a rural area, we only have very limited opportunities to generate income,” says Thomas Weber, the non-partisan local mayor ofkommen.

At the same time, municipalities have to bear more and more financial burdens, for example for the expansion of daycare centers. “There you go The leasing of, among other things, municipal land to solar park operators is an important source of income.” Otherwise the municipality would be forced to further increase the property tax rates, says Weber. The municipality also wants to their contribution to energy transition afford.

The German Association of Cities and Municipalities fundamentally understands that municipalities make their areas available for solar parks. “This is about the expansion of renewable energies desired by politicians, but of course also about generating revenue for municipal budgets,” says Bernd Düsterdiek, who is responsible for the environment and urban development at the municipal association.

80,000 hectares of agricultural land required

As a rule, high-quality soils should not be used for ground-mounted photovoltaic systems. Agricultural use should have priority here, emphasizes Düsterdiek. New PV systems should be installed in a space-saving manner, especially on roofs or fallow land. According to the German Farmers' Association, photovoltaic systems belong first on roofs, barns, farm buildings or parking lots and, last of all, on fertile soil.

To ensure sustainable nutrition, the association calls for the loss of agricultural land for ground-mounted PV systems to be avoided as much as possible. Large losses of land have long been at the expense of agriculture, for example due to nature conservation measures. The expansion of renewable energies has also been added. The farmers' association criticizes that 80,000 hectares of agricultural land would be needed in the coming years for the planned construction of open-field PV systems.

Without Use of open space no energy transition

Renewable energies or agriculture – the Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) does not want to decide who should have priority in the event of a usage conflict. Fertile arable land should not be cultivated, explains Maximilian Heller, land use expert at BUND. He is also in favor of photovoltaic systems being installed primarily on roofs and sealed surfaces.

However, the energy transition will not work entirely without ground-mounted PV systems, according to the BUND. According to calculations by the environmental organization, around one percent of agricultural land would have to be reallocated for the development of open-air PV areas. “A marginal size,” says Heller, compared to the much greater use of agricultural land for the cultivation of feed and energy crops.

“Cannot be offset”

Experts have generally observed increasing competition for space in recent years. Not only agriculture and forests, but also commercial areas, living space and climate protection would need space. “Area is a contested resource,” says Antje Bruns, professor of geography at the University of Trier. The energy transition further exacerbates the problem. “The different forms of renewable energies, for example ground-mounted photovoltaics, are significantly more space-intensive than fossil and nuclear energy production.”

Whether agriculture or renewable energies should have priority in a competitive situation must be weighed up on a case-by-case basis – in Bruns's opinion, it cannot be answered in principle. “These cannot be set off against each other; all interests have their justification.” Both regional food production and sufficient energy are necessary for a secure future. Creative solutions and synergies are therefore required, says the expert.

Agri-photovoltaics as a solution?

A solution to the usage conflict could be so-called agri-photovoltaics. This involves PV modules that are located in agricultural fields, for example between crops or above fruit trees, i.e. a dual use of arable land. Both the environmental organization BUND and the German Farmers' Association can imagine such synergies.

PV systems in the field could protect plants and fruits from sun, heavy rain, hail or even wind. At the same time, the construction of such systems is more complicated and they are therefore more expensive compared to ground-mounted PV systems. Both the farmers' association and BUND are therefore calling for agricultural photovoltaics to be made more economically attractive.

Agri-photovoltaics enables the simultaneous cultivation of fields on which solar panels are located.

Affected farmers are skeptical

Farmer Kern's fields are largely located in the area of ​​the Rhine-Hesse municipality of Gensingen. The municipality is aiming to develop agri-photovoltaic projects operated by citizens' cooperatives on parts of its land that have so far been used purely for agriculture. “The hunger for energy is constantly growing, we have to exhaust all possibilities,” says local mayor Armin Brendel (FWG). “That's why we have to compromise.”

But Kern doesn't believe in this dual use. Because, as he says, agri-photovoltaics would involve too high investment costs and additional effort for the farmer. “That's not profitable for me, nor is it practical.” Therefore, Kern currently does not intend to participate in the planned citizens' cooperative project in his community. In the future, he would like to primarily produce food and not build up his soil with photovoltaic modules.

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