Reposted from Kentucky.com
Solar energy is one answer to our insatiable energy needs: It’s clean, renewable, cheap, and an antidote to the environmental ravages and climate change that the extraction and use of coal has made on Kentucky and the world.
So why is it causing such a ruckus in Clark County?
It turns out that Kentucky is a gold mine (forgive me) for the kind of big solar facilities that more and more energy companies are interested in: Lots of sun, lots of flat, open land, and most important, easy access to the PJM grid, a huge regional transmission organization (RTO) that serves as a wholesale electricity provider, serving 14 states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio and huge swathes of the mid-Atlantic states.
But flat, open, sunny land can often include farmland, and in Clark County, that’s what appears to be happening. Folks in Winchester first heard about the companies sniffing around, not from any kind of public meetings or open announcements, but from word of a new ordinance from the Planning Commission that would allow zone changes to permit big solar facilities on agricultural zone land. The solar facility that you can see from I-64 was put up by the Eastern Kentucky Electric Cooperative, which did not need a zone change. The proposed facilities would be much bigger.
Now a group of residents, farmers and landowners have put together a group called the Clark Coalition, along with a change.org petition opposing the ordinance that has already garnered 2,000 signatures. They’re worried that changes to planning and zoning to allow solar will take prime farmland out of circulation for the foreseeable future.
Will Mayer is a full-time farmer in Clark, raising cattle and crops.
“We don’t think industrial scale solar is right for Clark County’s agricultural zone,” he said. “Our land is made up of highly productive soils which are the foundation of a significant local agriculture economy that contributes directly to over 1,300 jobs with an economic impact of $200 million annually.”
First off, Mayer said, many are opposed to the secrecy surrounding solar’s advent, which started back in fall of 2019.
Winchester attorney John Rompf is working for Swift Current Energy, a Massachusetts company that is looking at sites in Clark County. He freely admits working with the Clark County planning department to draft a new ordinance to allow a special use within an agriculture zone for solar facilities. It’s currently up for public comment, but no one seemed to know about it before word leaked out.
Rompf disputes claims that the land would be taken out of commission forever; solar panels have a life of between 30-40 years, and they are set on concrete footers, but the land itself is not affected once the panels are taken down, he said.
Swift Current Energy has seen interest from some landowners, said director of development Dave Fowler for one simple reason: “From a financial aspect for the landowners, our offer is significantly better than the opportunities that farming provides right now.”
Farming’s woes are another story, one too complicated to tell here. But it will surely not be helped by thousands of solar panels on some of the most fertile soil in the state.
Judge Executive Chris Pace did not return calls for comment.
“This ordinance was written by solar developers and their attorney,” Mayer said. “They’re writing their own rules for their own benefit,” as opposed to the 2018 comprehensive plan, which was updated with wide community input.
“The result would be massive conversion of highly productive and finite agricultural land for the benefit of East Coast utility consumers and the developers,” Mayer said. “That’s really important, that’s something that’s generated a lot of conversation in our community, that we’re not benefiting from these proposed developments.”
Clark County is far from the only county with proposed solar developments; right now there are almost 50 proposed across Kentucky in places ranging from Fleming to Hardin to Barren Counties, according to PJM. Close by, Madison County just passed a new ordinance to govern solar facilities and Mercer County zoning officials approved in July text amendments that would allow solar farms as conditional uses in some agricultural zones. That would pave the way for a 1,200 acre, $150 million project that would be located approximately 2.5 miles north of Harrodsburg on the west side of U.S. Route 127.
Former state auditor Adam Edelen, who is now a local solar developer, is involved in the Mercer project. He thinks solar development is an important move for Kentucky to adopt, although not in the way Clark County officials have chosen.
“That’s not my project, but what we’ve seen is the confluence of a community that wasn’t ready for the concept,” he said. “I think when you are making a proposal to develop in a community, you ought to bring the plan and engage the community.
Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council has written a model solar ordinance for counties to look at if and when they get approached by private developers.
“Without an ordinance the development will occur and it will be where you don’t want it to be,” FitzGerald said. “I would always suggest that planning officials bring in the neighbors and the agriculture sector. Bring in support from American Farmland Trust, you have to try to balance out need for cleaner energy with interest in saving farmland.”
There is a lot more to write about the merits of the solar sector as it emerges as a new industry in Kentucky, which let’s face it, has many open spaces upon which to build solar. But here are my questions for Clark County officials: If this is such good development, why has it been planned in secrecy? And by rushing in with solar, will you kill the golden goose of agriculture that has been so important for so long? These seem like pretty basic questions and it seems like they should be answered in public. I look forward to hearing the answers.