Reposted from the Lexington Herald Leader
While the global pandemic has gripped the nation and dominated headlines, a different outbreak has been playing out in Kentucky’s agricultural heartland.
For much of the last year, Kentucky’s acclaimed rural landscape has been quietly besieged by out-of-state and foreign interests seeking to convert tens of thousands of acres of productive farmland into industrial solar facilities.
The scope of this issue is alarming. There are currently more than 100 proposed industrial-scale solar developments in at least 47 Kentucky counties. In total, these facilities would consist of 25-60 million+ solar panels – presenting a potential massive liability at the end of their useful lives.
The local ordinances which enable large solar developments – often written by the solar developers themselves – generally do not provide sufficient surety to cover the costs of decommissioning. In the absence of adequate local protections, this significant financial burden will fall on state taxpayers.
A recent study in Harvard Business Review is enlightening. It indicates that the cost to recycle a single solar panel is $20-30 compared to $1-2 to dispose of it in a landfill. To prevent Kentucky from becoming a dumping ground for solar waste in the future we must make smart policy decisions now.
Decommissioning is just one example of the many items to be addressed. Industrial-scale solar is a complex land-use issue with numerous economic, environmental, fiscal and quality of life considerations. Different communities have unique characteristics. Some will find industrial solar to be compatible with their land-use planning goals; others will not.
It’s important that communities have a thorough understanding of the costs and benefits of proposed solar developments. The prevailing trend, however, is for developers to rush their projects through with as little public awareness or input as possible –as seen in Clark County, Madison County, Mason County and numerous others.
Why are speed and secrecy so important to commercial solar developers? Because, when thoroughly examined, many of the claims made in support of such developments do not standup to scrutiny.
Advocates for unchecked industrial solar expansion routinely understate the number of acres that would be consumed by such developments– an error that Ms. Legg repeats in her op-ed.
Based on current filings submitted to the PSC’s State Siting Board, the average number of acres needed to generate 1 megawatt is 9.98. That would make the state’s solar footprint 110,000 acres, as currently proposed– nearly four times higher than the 28,000 acres Ms. Legg claims.
Her comparison of proposed solar facilities to the state’s total agricultural acreage also fails to distinguish between the wide variation of agricultural soils, and their impact – not only to local economies and business networks – but also to the effort to combat climate change. Prime soils play an outsized role in sustaining our growing population and serve as an important carbon sink. Concurrently, industrial solar can be more responsibly-accommodated on marginal land throughout the state and elsewhere.
While the developers are quick to paint a picture of struggling farmers needing the income (that supposedly only solar can provide) the truth is somewhat more complex. In fact, many of those under-contract for solar development are absentee landowners, not farmers. By contrast, many of the farmers who actually make their living from the land will invariably suffer from the loss of their farm leases.
The uneven consequences of large solar facilities are further brought to focus by their impact on adjoining property owners. Contrary to developers’ claims that their facilities do not negatively affect nearby properties, independent valuation studies demonstrate they cause a decline of up to 30%. This is an unjustifiable burden on rural homeowners who have spent years building equity in their homes.
Industrial solar proposals are neither uniformly bad nor good – rather they are complex and demand a transparent analysis to ensure that they are sited appropriately, and that the associated benefits do not disproportionately accrue to the developers and outside interests while the real financial and environmental costs are borne by Kentuckians.
Will Mayer is the executive director of Clark Coalition, a land-use advocacy organization promoting smart-growth, sustainable economic development and government transparency in Winchester-Clark County. Through its education & research initiatives, Clark Coalition has taken a leading role examining issues concerning solar development since its formation in June 2020.