Reposted from the Louisville Courier Journal
Jim Waters paints an overly simplistic picture in his Sept. 24 opinion piece on solar development on Kentucky farmland.
While he breezily references Stephen Foster’s famous lines in our state song, perhaps it would be more useful to look at the data. In fact, much of Kentucky has only a moderate solar resource– 4.5 peak sun hours per day, less than surrounding states of Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri, and more similar to Ohio and Indiana, and the northern climes of Maine and the Canadian provinces.
Why, then, are out-of-state and foreign-owned solar developers targeting Kentucky’s agricultural land? Because utility-scale solar projects have more to do with harvesting tax credits than harvesting sunlight.
The current push to site massive industrial-solar facilities on Kentucky farmland is largely the result of a lavish federal tax credit which returns 26% of the project’s cost to the developers. This flies in the face of Mr. Waters’ assertion that solar is competing in the marketplace without government intervention.
Commercial solar developers further benefit from a state regulation which classifies solar electric generation as “manufacturing” enabling them to qualify for locally-issued Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) to finance their projects. This arrangement reduces the developers’ state tax bill by 90% – robbing Kentucky taxpayers of revenue that could otherwise be put towards pension liabilities, education, infrastructure and other priorities.
In return for facilitating low-cost financing through the IRBs, local communities get a paltry payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) – generally amounting to a fraction of 1% of their current revenue. So, the community gets a couple hundred-thousand dollars while the developers reap tens of millions, without bearing any of the risk. Free-market? Hardly.
The purpose of the IRB tax break is to create long-term jobs in local communities. However, by the solar developers’ own admission, their projects don’t generate many long-term jobs. Nor do they make communities more attractive for corporate investment.
The inter-regional nature of our electric grid means that East Coast states and companies with renewable energy mandates can source those renewable credits from flyover states while hypocritically opposing such developments in their own communities – a well-documented occurrence from New York to Northern Virginia.
That the benefits of large-scale solar developments disproportionately accrue to the developers and outside interests is only half the story. What about the costs?
The unfortunate reality is that –without proper oversight from local and state government – the costs will be borne largely by our citizens, whether they be neighboring property owners, taxpayers or electricity consumers.
The detrimental effect of large solar facilities to nearby properties is significantly greater than Mr. Waters will admit. Valuation studies conducted by independent appraisers have identified multiple case studies of diminution of 30%.
This isn’t just a question of viewsheds –which are important in their own right to local tourism and quality of life –but whether it’s justifiable for out-of-state and foreign interests to destroy the lifesavings of hard-working Kentuckians, particularly without due process as Mr. Waters advocates.
The impact of industrial-scale solar facilities reaches far beyond neighboring property owners. Indeed everyone who pays taxes or consumes services in Kentucky should be concerned. Given the current lack of decommissioning standards, local –and ultimately state– taxpayers will be on the hook to decommission, reclaim and recycle potentially 60 million plus solar panels. The current proposals alone would comprise a liability of $1.3 to 2.6 billion.
This should be a red flag to our state legislators and anyone even remotely aware of our Commonwealth’s long history of bonding failures vis-à-vis energy production.
Finally, it is important to recognize the fallacy of Mr. Waters’ claim that widespread adoption of industrial solar would result in cheap and reliable energy.
While the cost of solar modules has declined –largely due to state-sponsored, anti-competitive practices in China which have manipulated the global market–the price of electricity in places that have pursued vast utility-scale renewable generation has risen substantially.
Take California, as an example. The average price of electricity in California, which sources a third of its energy from renewables, is 19.90¢ / kWh. This is 88% higher than Kentucky’s 10.56 ¢ /kWh. Not only is the energy more expensive, it’s less reliable – as has been well-documented in recent brownouts and blackouts from California to Germany.
It is ironic that Mr. Waters’ purported “think-tank” – which claims to promote transparent government – would advocate for such thoughtless policy.
What communities need is a thorough understanding of the costs and benefits of large-scale solar developments and a transparent process by which to evaluate them. Not empty promises from outsiders seeking to extract value from our natural resources that leave us to deal with the environmental and economic fallout.
Sarah Steele lives in Mercer County. Elizabeth Berry is a member of the Citizens Voice of Mason County. Dan Feeser is a member of the Hardin County Citizens for Responsible Solar. Will Mayer is the executive director of Clark Coalition.