By Debbie Wachter | New Castle News. (Part 3 of 4)
Vesper Energy of Allen, Texas, has been trying to spread the positive word about the importance of solar energy generated from panels on farmland and the potential benefits to farmers, the environment and the economy.
In promoting its proposed Firefly Solar project, its representatives took its information to a public open house in August at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. Fewer than 10 people attended, and a couple were farmers.
A ripple of doubt has spread among the North Beaver Township farm community about what the leases on their farmland would offer them and what their liabilities might be, should they lease their land for solar power.
State lawmakers now are looking at tax incentives to get solar companies to locate on other types of land where it’s less invasive than on prime agricultural acreage.
Representatives of Vesper and the Pennsylvania Conservative Energy discussed the benefits of solar energy and the company’s plans to lease farmland in North Beaver, which were halted two years ago when the township supervisors adopted an ordinance limiting commercial/industrial solar energy generation to industrial zones only.
Vesper did not appeal the township decision to court within the 30-day window. One farmer who signed a lease with Vesper challenged the ordinance with the state Office of the Attorney General, but his challenge was denied.
Thus, the ordinance stands.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33) has introduced a bill that would prohibit large-scale solar project developments on prime Pennsylvania farmland. Senate Bill 798 would not allow development on land considered prime, or best for farming and crop production, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in classes of I, II, III and IV.
The bill would create a state tax credit program unavailable in any other state to provide incentives for solar companies to develop on alternative sites, such as brownfields or old industrial lots, abandoned strip-mined land, capped landfills, warehouse rooftops and surface parking lots. The bill is in the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
State Sen. Elder Vogel, committee chairman who owns a dairy farm in Beaver County, said he agrees with the bill.
“You’d be tying up good farmland for 30 to 40 years for a small amount of rent, and at some point, we’re going to run out of farmland,” he said. “That’s a lot of time for a generation of a family to come and go.”
WHAT FARMERS SAY
The largest farm advocacy groups in the state, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the Pennsylvania State Grange, support policies that protect prime farmland from large-scale solar developments.
Clifford Wallace, a North Beaver farmer and the Beaver-Lawrence Farm Bureau president, said an immediate concern of farmers is ensuring that the solar energy company posts an appropriate bond to reclaim the land, should the company go bankrupt. He said farmers prefer class I and II soil for its organic matter and farmability, while solar companies might prefer it for its convenience.
“We’re not against solar — it’s going to be a piece of future policy, but there are thousands of acres of reclaimed strip mine with little topsoil within this county, and only a little bit of that was included in the Vesper project,” Wallace explained. “From our standpoint, if you want to put solar in, why not use that land? It will have minimal impact on the production of crops and can produce a tremendous amount of energy.”
Wallace said the farmers have unanswered questions about Vesper’s proposed contracts and their renewal clauses.
“Once the properties go into use, they’re probably going to stay in, long-term, and you’ll see renewals and updates of technology, but these are all question marks that we have,” Wallace said.
Vesper was looking to lease about 2,700 acres initially, in North Beaver Township, Wallace said. The company has invested money in surveying and identifying wetlands, trees and setbacks, which reduces their actual project size to about 1,300 acres, and the prime farmland is the remaining piece of land that can be used, Wallace pointed out. “We’re in a sweet spot here, where we’re having good production of crops in this county. We need to look at what we should be doing with our land and what will be the right thing as you look back in 50 years.”
He noted that Vesper “jumped into a situation where the company was able to acquire a lot of land to create a system at low cost, now it is spending time trying to justify its project.
“It’s not black and white,” Wallace said. “It’s very gray and very concerning. It involves the future of America, and we should do the right thing. Should we sacrifice our best land?”
Wallace, who attended Vesper’s open house, pointed out that the potential for bankruptcy of any company leasing solar land is a big concern of farmers.
“Will it be the same company in 40 years? Probably not,” he said, adding electricity cost increases would lower shares paid to those leasing land.
“There’s very little in writing that guarantees anything in these leases. There are a lot of promises.”
WHAT VESPER IS SAYING
Company representatives and other proponents of the project who sat in a roundtable at the open house discussed what they believe are the positives of solar farmland energy and promoting the project.
Joe Torkelson, Vesper’s manager of development, admitted the company’s biggest interest in the project is capital, and its focus is southwestern Lawrence County — North Beaver Township in particular — where there is contiguous farmland. He said they’re trying to build a community presence and have lease agreements with 25 or 26 landowners in the area with most on five-year agreements.
The company isn’t saying how many of those farmers have renewed them. The long-term lease options are for 20 to 30 years with an option to extend them another 10 years, he said.
“After 40 years we would decommission the sites,” Torkelson said.
EJay Fyke of Vesper explained in an email that decommissioning a project is a traditional step in operations as the company ensures the project adheres to its contractual obligations with the landowners and commitments made with host communities.
“Once the project has reached the end of its operational life, decommissioning the project equipment provides the opportunity for the ground to return to farming practices if the landowner chooses,” he said.
For the landowner, a lease with Vesper would generate $800 to $1,200 per acre per year, Torkelson estimated, and the taxing value on the land would increase. That could also mean that the landowners’ taxes would increase with an increase in assessed value.
He said that while the project’s lifespan is estimated at 25 to 30 years, local government entities promised an annual $250,000 would reap those payments beyond that, for 40 years. The Mohawk Area School District accepted an offer for the money, should the project transpire, but the North Beaver supervisors and the Lawrence County commissioners have balked at signing similar agreements.
The company would post bonds through the townships, he said. After the life of the project, the glass panels would be recycled and the farmland they occupy would be returned to tillable acreage. However, questions have been asked about the recycling viability of the panels and if there would be a market for it in two or three decades.
Seven- or eight-foot-high fencing with barbed wire around the sites is a requirement, Torkelson added.
He said that Vesper would use the generated electricity from its solar panel system to sell to businesses and industries for profit. Fyke estimated the economic impact at $300 million a year and would create 300 construction jobs. About six or seven jobs would be permanent to maintain the panel sites.
Right now, the township ordinance restrictions are preventing the company from continuing with the project, Fyke said. He said that money offered to the school district, county and township “is to show our commitment” and to let them know that not only the company would be making money from it.
A consultant and an advocate for Vesper’s project, Jonathan Baxter, said farmers could conceivably grow shorter crops if the panels are raised to 10 feet. He said sheep, because of the lamb market, would be a fit, while goats would not because they tend to chew wires.
Penn State entered into a 25-year solar power agreement with Lightsource bp, a subsidiary of British Petroleum, for a 70-megawatt project consisting of 150,000 solar panels across roughly 500 acres at the university’s Mont Alto campus in Franklin County.
The system, in place since 2020, provides 25 percent of Penn State’s statewide electricity needs, according to the university. Penn State estimated it would save about $600,000 in energy costs over the first two years of the agreement and $14 million over the entire 25-year contract. A news release from Penn State said it began buying 100 percent renewable energy generated from the three solar farms and has already exceeded savings expectations of about $2.5 million in energy costs.
With photos here: https://www.ncnewsonline.com/news/local_news/solar-dilemma-vesper-continues-push-for-north-beaver-solar-farms/article_275cce3c-3623-11ee-88e5-8776203c3c54.html