At the 2022 Pennsylvania Farm Show, the Pennsylvania State Grange presented an informative program on solar power generation as it relates to agriculture. The panel presented thought-provoking ideas on whether industrial-scale solar power generation can co-exist with production agriculture.
Improving the use of alternative energies is a positive objective that this General Assembly must pursue. Solar energy is a great example of producing energy with less of a climate footprint. However, the Pennsylvania State Grange is urging the General Assembly to develop a framework for this mass-produced alternative energy.
We believe Pennsylvania shouldn’t pick winners and losers. Our state is endowed with multiple sources of energy. Increased energy production from solar power generation should not put people who have jobs in fossil fuels and natural gas extraction out of work, as these industries are huge economic drivers. in Pennsylvania and should also be encouraged. Lawmakers should not take sides and suggest that there is only one energy solution worth pursuing. If the COVID pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has certainly reminded us not to put all our eggs in one basket. The food shortages of the past two years bear witness to this!
Given the growing interest of energy companies in “harvesting” solar energy from farms, we urge the General Assembly to be at the forefront of this issue before the regulatory environment becomes a minefield. confusing and conflicting. The first question is who regulates the development of large-scale solar energy? Is it the Public Utilities Commission? Is it the federal government? Is it local zoning? Should the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Environmental Protection have a say in the approvals of these huge solar power plants? Investors and farmers need clarity because regulatory uncertainty can doom a project.
The second and perhaps most important question is how do you decide where to place these facilities? Currently, it seems that energy companies prefer to develop agricultural land. as it is usually flat or gently sloping land, which makes it more profitable.
The problem stems from the threat of loss of productive agricultural land from what is essentially a solar power plant. Pennsylvania leads the nation in farmland protection and preservation. The Growing Greener Program and Farm Preservation in Pennsylvania has protected farmland from commercial or residential development for many years. These achievements should not be compromised by trading off food security for energy security. The General Assembly will have to decide how we can have both.
The Pennsylvania State Grange suggests that energy companies document why reclaimed mining land or brownfields cannot be used in place of agricultural land. Second, we believe that facilities should not take farmland out of production unless another type of farming (pasture or specialty crops) can still take place. Finally, solar energy installations should be installed in areas verified by conservation districts as not adding pollution to our waterways.
A few other issues that we believe also need to be addressed are whether the solar power produced by the farm can be shared with surrounding communities or bypassed. Will there be compensation for removal of the solar installation if the energy company becomes insolvent?
During our panel discussion at the Farm Show, it was revealed that approximately 420 possible solar farm projects are currently proposed in Pennsylvania, which would require approximately 80,000 acres of land to build. While solar energy has the potential to be an alternative energy generation, it is important to carefully consider how its use of solar installations can harm Pennsylvania’s agricultural heritage.
Wayne Campbell is president of the Pennsylvania State Grange. The Pennsylvania State Grange was founded in 1873 to advocate for the needs of farmers and rural communities in the Commonwealth.