Visitors at a Westmill Solar Co-operative Open Day at Westmill Solar Park, June 23, 2012. (Ben Cavanna/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources held its first public hearing Tuesday to design new regulations governing the solar energy industry and the leasing of private land for solar farms — tracts of land filled with solar panels for electricity production.
Tuesday’s hearing, the first of several hearings anticipated, was the result of recently-passed legislation crafted by Sen. Bret Allain (R-Franklin) in an effort to put some regulations in place to catch up with the rapidly-expanding solar industry in Louisiana.
On Monday the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry had approved a tax incentive package for a proposed $98 million solar farm on 1,000 acres of leased land in Morehouse Parish. The company, Bayou Galion Solar, is seeking an 80% property tax exemption — worth more than $1.1 million the first year — for 10 years via Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. In exchange, the company predicts it will create three new contract jobs and 150 construction jobs.
Bayou Galion’s ITEP application is one of several the board has recently received from solar energy companies. In March, Entergy Louisiana launched a request for proposals seeking 500 megawatts of solar power, which, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, would be enough to power about 50,000 homes.
But news of such projects has some farmers on edge. Most farmers in Louisiana are tenant-farmers who lease the land on which they grow crops, according to Joe Mapes with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, who testified in support of Allain’s bill in May. Some of those tenant-farmers are worried that solar companies will outbid them for the land and subsequently put them out of work.
Similar sentiments were expressed at Tuesday’s hearing. Jim Simon, general manager of the trade organization American Sugar Cane League, asked the department to study the economic impacts that could result if solar farms replace a significant portion of agricultural farms.
“One acre of sugar cane supports almost $5,000 of annual economic activity for the rural communities in the sugar belt. Does solar do this?” Simon said. “Thirty acres of cane supports one local job in our small towns. Does solar do that?”
According to SolarReviews.com, the average 1-megawatt farm can earn roughly $40,000 a year by selling its electricity to utilities, and landowners who lease their land out for a solar farm can earn between $250 to $3,000 per acre per year.
Jeff Clark, president of the Advanced Power Alliance, testified at Tuesday’s hearing that the solar industry should create additional opportunities for farmers.
“For a lot of these families who have struggled with commodity prices or weather, the opportunity to diversify their income and have a predictable source of revenue from renewables or other energy — it’s a tremendous opportunity for them and will allow some predictability that allows them to stay on that land,” Clark said.
Others asked the department to research environmental impacts of solar farms. Jennifer Brown, president of the Louisiana Beekeepers Association, said solar farms will cause bee populations to decline.
“It decreases biodiversity during and post-construction, and from the sites I’ve seen, they don’t go back and plant; they sterilize the ground and they spray heavy chemicals to control,” Brown said. “Our bees can’t live through that.”
Some states have addressed that problem by requiring that native plants be planted underneath the solar panels and by encouraging dual-use farming, according to testimony by Stephen Wright with Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association.
In Minnesota, for instance, more than half of the 4,000 acres of solar farms built in 2016 and 2017 feature native plants that create pollinator-friendly environments, according to Ensia, a nonprofit media outlet published at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Wright said some areas of the country even integrate cattle ranching with solar farms.
Mark Yates, also with the Advanced Power Alliance, testified to the successes seen in his state, Oklahoma, regarding solar energy.
“In Oklahoma, it’s a success story,” Yates said. “Many of these renewable projects, in the counties that they are developed in, become one of the top taxpayers in the county…There’s a force multiplier from an economic development standpoint in the counties which host these projects. Across Oklahoma we’re also starting to see the ancillary pieces of the economy being built out as data centers [and] manufacturing facilities are all starting to buy some of this renewable power”
Mary Watts, a resident of Tangipahoa Parish, called solar farms unsightly and said she is concerned that they reduce nearby property values.
She said she built a retirement home in rural Tangipahoa four years ago but is now facing a solar farm being developed across the road.
“I do believe a landowner has a right to do what he wants with his property, but when it starts affecting adjacent properties, the value of their property and health concerns, then I do have a problem with that,” Watts said. “I moved up there because of the beautiful country, and now I’m going to have a solar farm not only on the east of me but I believe on the south side too.”
The Department of Natural Resources will weigh those concerns as it holds additional meetings and crafts regulations for the solar industry, State Energy Office Director Jason Lanclos said.
Proponents of solar said they welcome regulations as long as they are fair and comparable to those of other energy sectors.
“We believe that [solar energy] brings economic diversification that every state, every community will benefit from, and of course it saves consumers money,” Clark said. “I think the states that are going to be the leading states in energy in 30 years are the states that do a good job of making this transition now and leveraging every resource that they have.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.