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Will Pa.'s huge solar-energy push succeed? It may be up to farmers

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Chris Werner had been looking into solar energy for his organic turkey farm near Jonestown, Lebanon County, for years before he took the plunge.

"The money never made sense," he said. "We wanted to get it paid off in 10 years or less."

It took grants, tax credits and low-interest rates for solar to make sense for the Pennsylvania Century farm. Werner and his father, Jeff, have about 600 panels on about an acre of his farm generating about 275 kilowatts, enough to power the farm and residences on the property.

Solar makes sense financially now, but barely, he said. He estimates that it will take 11.3 years to pay off the project.

"I'll put it this way: I spent a half-million to put this system up to save $20,000 a year," he said.

It would seem like a foolish venture; with government and private support it is "barely not foolish," he said.

He received a grant of $21,667 from the Met-Ed/Penelec Sustainable Energy Fund of Berks County Community Foundation. He also got funding from a Rural Energy for America Program grant, federal tax credits and Werner's own investment.

Werner said he still doesn't rely completely on solar.

"After the sun goes down, I still need to power my farm," he said. "There's a place for solar. You can make money, but it takes a lot of things to make it click."

As Pennsylvania pushes for solar, focus turns to farmers, zoning and the challenges of making it click.

A big push 

Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a major clean energy initiative that aimed to supply half of state government’s electricity through seven new solar energy arrays to be built around the state.

That's 191 megawatts.

According to ElectricChoice.com, the average amount of electricity consumed by a house in Pennsylvania is 857 kilowatts per month. Pennsylvania is ranked 32 in electric usage among the states. 

There are 1,000 kilowatts in a megawatt.

Part of the governor’s GreenGov initiative, Pennsylvania PULSE (Project to Utilize Light and Solar Energy) is to go into operation on Jan. 1, 2023.

Officials said it is the largest solar commitment by any government in the U.S. announced to date.

The companies will leverage the state's commitment to fuel seven solar installation projects. Lightsource bp will own and operate the arrays on long-term-leased farmland. The company is partially owned by petroleum giant, BP, based in the United Kingdom. 

Solar arrays will be built in seven locations in six counties: Columbia, Juniata, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and York.

The solar project is expected to begin lowering carbon emissions statewide by 157,800 metric tons each year — the equivalent of the emissions from nearly 27,000 homes, or taking 34,000 vehicles off the roads.

The Department of General Services contracted with Constellation, a subsidiary of Excelon, the owner of the nuclear power plant Limerick Generating Station.

The state secured with Constellation a 15-year fixed-price supply agreement. Serving as a technical adviser on the purchase, the Penn State Facilities Engineering Institute coordinated an innovative retail approach.

"Pennsylvania PULSE reflects our commitment to making renewable energy the heart of DGS energy strategy," said General Services Secretary Curt Topper. "The contract with Constellation provides us with long-term price protection and budget certainty, while the retail purchase model coordinated by the Penn State Facilities Engineering Institute is groundbreaking in enabling us to obtain an in-state solar energy supply for over 400 accounts with administrative and fiscal simplicity. We’re excited to have this new model in place as we work toward more clean energy use in the future."

The Solar Renewable Energy Credits generated by the project will be retired upon purchase by the commonwealth, ensuring that such credits cannot be used for compliance or voluntary purposes by any other entity, thereby preserving the existing credits market.

The climate backdrop

The push for renewable energy comes as the climate is changing.

The 2020 Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment documents that Pennsylvania’s average state temperature has climbed nearly 2 degrees since 1901, and the state average annual rainfall has increased about 10%, while extreme weather events have increased.

It's projected that by midcentury, every county will be 4.9 degrees warmer than in 2000, while average precipitation is expected to increase 8% to 12%, unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to slowing climate change and protecting our health and safety, environment and economy," DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement in March. "With over 85% of Pennsylvania's greenhouse gas emissions coming from energy production and use, pursuing clean energy and energy efficiency at the enterprise scale, as the state government solar procurement demonstrates, will make a big impact.

"At the same time, research shows the clean energy sector is a leading creator of quality jobs in Pennsylvania, bringing positive economic impacts as well."

Clean energy industries added nearly 7,800 jobs in Pennsylvania in 2017-19, for an 8.7% average job growth rate, significantly exceeding the average overall job growth in the state, according to the 2020 Pennsylvania Clean Energy Employment report.

According to the report, Berks County has 3,344 clean energy jobs while Chester County has 4,895; Montgomery, 9,265; and Delaware, 3,354. 

The state says the project will create 400 jobs. These are jobs associated with construction of the arrays. It's unclear if those are temporary installation-type jobs or in manufacturing.

Not without controversy

Solar arrays can set off controversy. 

Last year, a farmer and Berks County planning commission member questioned a project in Richmond Township.

The project proposed to take prime farmland and rezone it to light industrial to accommodate the solar project.

The Duffield soils on the property are deep or very deep well-drained soils, and considered some of the highest producing nonirrigated soil in the U.S. Ultimately, the supervisors opposed the rezoning.

Also last year, a proposal near Gettysburg to build Pennsylvania's largest solar project across nearly 1,000 acres and 18 farms drew hundreds to municipal meetings. The hearings wrapped up last month, and a petition on change.org continues.

In Berks, the Richmond Township project is one of five projects of Texas-based Belltown Power in various stages of development in Pennsylvania. 

The Richmond Township project appears to be moving ahead. It is listed in the engineering and procurement stage in the PJM New Services queue. PJM is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia.

Belltown has lease options on two tracts totaling 80 acres in Jefferson Township along New Schaefferstown Road and Bernville Road.

Belltown is not the only company trying to develop solar farms in Berks.

According to county property records, another solar developer, Glidepath Ventures LLC of Ardmore, Montgomery and Delaware counties, has entered into lease options for farmland in Perry, Richmond and Maidencreek townships.

Three of the parcels, totaling 143 acres, are owned by the Heffner family in Richmond and Maidencreek. Another parcel in Perry is a 243-acre farm owned by Quail Ridge LLC of Myerstown.

Solar plants on farms are expected to grow.

In Pennsylvania there are 406 solar projects planned with more than 4,000 megawatts in the pipeline.

In Berks there's 10 projects with 82 megawatts of capacity in the pipeline, according to the PJM new services queue.

There are two planned for Chester County with 17 megawatts of capacity, none in Montgomery County and two for 21 megawatts of capacity in Delaware County.

In Schuylkill County five projects are in the pipeline with 81 megawatts of capacity.

Runoff challenges

In Franklin County in southcentral Pennsylvania, solar panel projects have been a sore spot for its conservation district. Some assume solar panels are low impact on the land, but it's not that simple, said Thomas Swartz, erosion and sediment control technician.

"Honestly, its been very frustrating from the start," Swartz said.

He said developers regraded land to accommodate more solar panels without conservation district approval.

"It kind of took me by surprise," he said of the more than 90 acres regraded on one farm.

The company was fined. Swartz declined to say how much but that it was substantial.

"Every time it rained there were runoff issues," Swartz said.

The runoff and sediment did not enter a waterway, but it did go on neighboring properties.

The developer also had a hard time getting grass to grow beneath the panels because they were put in low to the ground. Grass helps stabilize sediment. Swartz noted that the ground can be quite compacted as construction equipment comes in to put in the panels. 

Municipalities are beginning to recognize the need to address solar farms. 

Pennsylvania Township News, a magazine of the state's township supervisors association, tackled the issue in its March issue, likening the coming boom of solar power to the Marcellus shale boom. The question is whether landowners and communities are prepared.

Research from Dickinson College, the Township News reported, is underway to see how municipal zoning ordinances handle solar power. 

"Dickinson's Mohamed Badissy and his law students have been scouring some 2,500 local zoning ordinances for any mention of solar," according to the article. "They’re halfway through the project, and so far, only 13% of those reviewed address this land use. These findings indicate that the majority of municipal zoning regulations aren’t keeping pace with the quickly growing solar industry."

State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat who leads the Senate's Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said it would be up to the Legislature to make changes to the municipal planning code so local officials have the tools they need to accommodate solar farms much like agriculture security areas. 

She said she supports solar energy but putting solar panels on extremely valuable farmland is a troubling prospect. 

Farmers are just learning that what seems like a beneficial arrangement to lease land to a solar developer can impact their bottom line.

Farmers or landowners who get tax breaks through the Clean and Green program could lose those tax breaks if the project serves more than just their farm. Such rollback taxes are a heavy burden for farmers, Schwank said. 

"We need to find a balance," she said.

Schwank also said she's learned there have been farmers withdrawing from agriculture easement programs so they can participate in solar leases. That is concerning because the easement program is meant to protect highly valued land for farming, she said.

Ignoring brownfields?

Solar panels can also be put on brownfields and landfills.

In fact, some experts say that's a good place for them.

But the state chose farmland because farmers were looking for additional revenue sources, officials said at the press conference.

Also, adapting brownfields for solar panels can be more expensive due to the remediation needed, Kevin Smith, CEO of Lightsource bp, said at the state's virtual press conference.

Werner, the Lebanon County farmer, said insurance costs vary, too. He considered putting panels on a structure, but it was more expensive than putting the solar array in an acre that was mostly not used or as productive as the rest of his 600 acres. 

He learned through his decade of research that it costs more to mount panels higher so sheep and goats can graze around them. For him, it was not cost-effective.

Solar is not going to save his farm, but he can see how for neighbors a lease would mean a steady income in the event future generations decide not farm but don't want a warehouse on their farm.

"I understand what they are trying to do clean things up, but you need to do a little of every (energy source)," he said. "If it truly pays, why don’t we have solar panels on all these warehouses?"

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