Consumers Energy will break ground in June on the state’s largest solar farm in Muskegon County, reversing a county policy that previously aimed to protect farmland from development.

While the official groundbreaking is still weeks away, construction has already started at the county’s wastewater treatment plant for the 1,900 acre solar farm Consumers Energy predicts will generate enough energy to power 40,000 homes, MLive reports.

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“We have some larger ones in the books but this will be the largest in the state,” Consumers project manager Shaun Casey told county commissioners Tuesday.

The roughly $350 million project will play a significant role in meeting Consumers’ long-term goal of utilizing 8,000 megawatts of solar by 2040, and will employ about 200 construction workers in the coming years. The facility is expected to be in operation by 2026, with six full-time employees.

“It was really a no-brainer for us economically,” Muskegon County Commissioner Charles Nash said. “It’s really grown into more than we thought it would, but we’re glad to see what it’s doing – adding jobs, adding possible better electric flow and distribution to our people.”

“It’s just great to see the way this is sprawling to Muskegon County in many different ways economically but also adding to the quality of life for all of us,” Nash said.

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Consumers is leasing the land that will remain in county ownership.

“Nash said Consumers pays the county more to lease the property than it previously cost to farm it,” MLive reports.

The shift of 1,900 acres from farmland to develop a solar farm seemingly breaks with the county’s efforts to protect farmland from development in recent decades. The Muskegon County Farmland Development Rights Ordinance approved in 2005 created the Muskegon County Farmland Preservation Program, which leverages tax dollars to purchase development rights from farmers as a means of controlling development.

“Because agricultural land is an invaluable economic, natural and aesthetic resource, the county should make an effort to maintain agricultural land in a substantially undeveloped state to ensure the long-term viability of agriculture and to create a long-term business environment for agriculture in the county,” the ordinance reads.

Similar programs are in place at the state level, such as the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program that currently protects between 21-35% of Muskegon County’s farmland. That program also includes the purchase of development rights, though “currently funding is not available for this program,” according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development website.

A Muskegon Area-Wide Plan cites research from the American Farmland Trust that found Michigan “ranked as the 9th most endangered farm state.

“The study found that the prime soil that is the most fertile is being lost to development, and that every state is losing some of its best food producing farmland,” the plan read.

The American Farmland Trust’s most recent report “Farms Under Threat 2040” published in 2022 ranked Michigan 10th for “states with the most acres of Nationally Significant agricultural land projected to be converted to urban and highly developed and low-density residential uses between 2016 and 2040.”

Under the report’s “business as usual” scenario, Michigan could lose 304,000 acres by 2040, a figure that could be reduced to 163,400 with “better built cities,” or explode to 446,000 with “runaway sprawl.”

The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture 2022 Census of Agriculture shows Muskegon County has 396 farms, a figure that’s down 17% from 2017. The average size of 166 acres is up 25% from 2017, while the total of 65,932 acres of farmland is up 4%.

Kevon Martis, commissioner in Lenawee County with 15 years studying utility scale renewable energy zoning, recently highlighted how converting farmland for commercial solar projects often benefits landowners, at the expense of the local agriculture industry.

An economic analysis of a 1,600 acre project in Deerfield Township by Michigan State University found it would result in $1.5 million in annual economic losses to the county’s agriculture economy, a figure that ballooned to $52.5 million over the life of the 35 year project, Martis said.

Muskegon County is expected to receive $668,000 in lease payments from Consumers this year, the first of the 28-year contract with built-in 2% annual increases in future years, according to MLive.

“Reserving the 1,900 acres, including 1,000 on which crops are grown, for the solar farm will still leave the county with 4,000 acres on which to grow crops,” according to the news site.

How exactly Consumers’ massive solar farm will comport with the Muskegon County’s efforts to preserve farmland, or the potential impact to the county’s agriculture industry, remains unclear.