Solar companies cut up chunks of Pennsylvania farmland, dividing farmers | News

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PITTSBURGH (TNS) — An energy company has set its sights on Lawrence County. He went door to door, promising farm owners a steady stream of income for decades, a way to keep their farms in the family and secure their children’s future.

In North Beaver, where most of the land is green and family-friendly, where there are less than a dozen traffic lights, where everyone seems to know who’s renting and who’s not, this energy project has sparked a storm.

And after a series of lively and passionate township meetings last summer, the township passed an ordinance banning large-scale solar development on farmland.

This puzzled Wayne Gill, a landsman with Western Land Services, who has worked in the area for years.

Not so long ago, he scoured North Beaver to secure oil and gas leases in the name of a major shale driller. Many of these farms already had coal leases, and some had been mined or were to be mined. When the solar company needed to assemble a block of land for a 200 megawatt solar project, Gill was sent to knock on the same doors that had given out gas leases a few years earlier.

“The first thing I did was look at some of the older landowners who weren’t currently farming their land and didn’t have a child or close relative willing to take that acreage and farm it” , said Gill. “They’re like, ‘What is this long-term legacy? How can I preserve this farmland?’

{p class=”krtText”}Some lease their land to other farmers at a rate of $50 to $100 per acre per year. The solar company pledged $1,000 per acre for each of the approximately 30 years the solar panels would operate.

The earth under the panels would be out of use for all those years – “resting”, as Gill put it – but in the end the soil could be redeployed for agriculture.

Even so, “If someone doesn’t want change, they won’t be for it,” he said.

“Out of nowhere, the North Beaver Township supervisors decided, ‘We don’t want it.'”

The intersection of large-scale solar development and Pennsylvania farmland preservation efforts has become a hot topic over the past year.

“These concerns are common,” said Erin Baker, director of development at Vesper Energy, the Texas-based solar developer behind the Firefly project in North Beaver. He is also building a much smaller solar farm in Beaver County called Gaucho Solar.

“I think there are a few factors that are important to keep in mind,” Baker said. “One is the ladder.”

Firefly, if built, would take up just 1% of Lawrence County’s farmland, she said.

But Vesper is one of four major solar companies that have the ability to lease land in the county. In total, they have at least 4% of the county’s acreage under contract and a greater percentage of acres of farmland.

Vesper’s plan is to install 200 megawatts initially and potentially double that, either on land already under option in North Beaver or through new leases, Baker said.

It’s part of the meteoric rise of solar in Pennsylvania.

At the end of last year, only 200 megawatts of solar power was connected to the grid statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Yet the pipeline of new projects is several times greater and includes much larger developments. Thousands of megawatts of solar projects have been set up to connect to the regional grid, operated by Valley Forge-based PJM Interconnection.

PJM coordinates the flow of electricity for 13 states and must assess the impact of a connection to a new source of production on the rest of the network. There are now so many solar projects online that PJM recently announced a two-year moratorium on new applications.

The traffic jam is not only in the queue. It’s in transmission lines, which is one of the main reasons businesses are flocking to rural townships, where there might be available capacity on the grid. Another is long stretches of unbroken flat land.

The Pennsylvania Grange, state Department of Agriculture, and rural county lawmakers have pondered the suitability of solar power for farmland and urged caution, if not outright opposition.

“We’re in a state that leads the nation in farmland preservation,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said during a panel on solar power at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Washington. January.

Over 600,000 acres of track have been preserved, the vast majority through conservation easements. The scheme, which began in 1988, involves landowners giving up their development rights in exchange for payment from the government. Other plots benefit from tax relief thanks to the Clean and Green program.

The biggest threat to farmland, Redding said, is not solar development but residential.

Still, the Department of Agriculture would like to avoid having solar panels on prime farmland, he said. The agency sent recommendations to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which serves as a guide for municipalities on issues such as zoning ordinances or comprehensive plans.

Redding said there is a place for solar in agriculture and it could, if done right, be a good way to diversify income for landowners and a good source of clean energy for agriculture. ‘State.

“We will find a way through the solar conversation and strike a balance between those who have a desire for solar power, a need for solar power, and respect for prime farmland in Pennsylvania,” he pledged. .

When things heated up during talks over the Township of North Beaver’s solar ordinance last year, Michael McBride was in the minority defending the project. He signed an option agreement with Vesper Energy and said that as a political conservative he did not want the government to restrict his property rights.

McBride, a police officer and the first person in his family not to cultivate full time — “My father said, ‘Go do something else. There’s no money in farming,” said most of his 500 acres of farmland is ineligible for solar development because it is preserved by conservation easements.

It’s a choice his grandfather made decades ago, to take a payment from the government and give up development rights.

“I’m stuck with this,” he said. “But I would be sacred if I told someone else what they can and cannot do with their soil.”

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