By Debbie Wachter | New Castle News
An informational meeting by Vesper Energy about its North Beaver Township Firefly Solar project turned into a verbal ear-boxing session as farmers questioned the company’s motives for wanting prime farmland for solar energy.
And although Vesper representatives claimed they had nothing to do with the recent smear campaign against incumbent township Supervisor Grant McKinley by his opponent in the Nov. 7 election, the flavor of some emails and text messages disseminated against him by a Texas political action group brought the company under fire for them.
EJay Fike, Vesper’s manager of community affairs, admitted to a group of about 15 people that the company’s introduction to farmers five years ago with proposed leases for their farmland was not done correctly. Fike joined the company in the spring of this year hoping to smooth over some hard feelings and emphasize the company is trying to be a good fit in the community.
Some of that smoothing has involved a pledge to pay the Mohawk Area School District $350,000 over 10 years and make the same offer to the township and the county. The company also is giving funds to certain nonprofit agencies to spread its goodwill, Fike said.
The Friday lunch meeting was sponsored by Forward Lawrence — Lawrence County’s umbrella organization over its economic development corporation and chamber of commerce — as one of its Noontime Knowledge events.
Vesper came into the township about five years ago with its proposed Firefly Solar project, seeking to lease farmland in North Beaver Township to construct contiguous glass solar panels for the generation of industrial solar energy. When the project came to light, and to preserve prime farmland and heeding public sentiment against it, the supervisors approved a change to the zoning ordinance that limits industrial solar to industrial land in the township only.
And while one farmer, Herman Cvetan, wanted to lease his land and fought the ordinance by filing an action with the governor’s office, he was unsuccessful. Vesper passed up the 30-day window to file an appeal to the ordinance change in court.
Cvetan instead ran against McKinley in the township supervisor’s race, vowing if he won he would overturn the ordinance. During the campaign, emails and mailings attempting to discredit McKinley were sent out to township residents, only bolstering the community’s opinion in favor of him, and he was re-elected by a landslide.
The emails had been paid for and disseminated by a political action group called R.E.D PAC, based in Houston, Texas.
Vesper Energy is based in Irving, Texas, about 200 miles from Houston.
Fyke, who has a background in campaign management, swore to the group Friday his company had nothing to do with the text messages or the campaign, nor did Vesper fund any money to that group, he said. Several in attendance, including McKinley, asked why the company sat silent and did not bring that to light until the election was over.
Stuart Day of North Beaver Township said Vesper’s presence in the community has created a divisiveness among the landowners.
“This community has had farmers who have lived here and done farming together for 200 years, and you guys came in and they’re not speaking to each other now,” he said. “This is just a bunch of corporate speak.”
He added, “For five years we’ve told you we don’t want you here, and you’re still here. Why are we still here talking about this?”
McKinley and Scott Barth, who also attended the session, are the two elected supervisors who voted to allow industrial solar panels only on industrial land and not on prime farmland. The next municipal election isn’t for two years, and both are staunch about their position.
Fyke said the company has no plans to exercise eminent domain against farmers who will not sign leases, nor does it intend to file any lawsuits challenging the ordinance terms.
McKinley questioned the 300 jobs the company promises to create, countering those will be temporary for construction jobs only. He pointed out many farmers and their help would be losing their jobs if the solar project materializes on farmland.
Joe Torkelson, Vesper’s development manager, explained that North Beaver is the location eyed for the 2,000-acre, 400-megawatt project because it is near an existing utility-owned transmission line by First Energy.
Firefly would sign a 15- to 20-year power purchase agreement with a yet-unknown company, enabling Vesper to sell energy at a contracted fixed rate for the next 15 to 20 years, Torkelson said.
Fyke said the company already has agreements with two local industries to buy the power, but those are just “handshake agreements” until the company gets started.