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Don’t hinder solar’s promise, farmers’ property rights

Editor’s Note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide.

Not only does the sun shine bright on our old Kentucky home, but plans to harness its power while providing farmers income from harvests of abundant, clean, renewable – and cheap – energy offer warm potential for a state historically dependent on fossil fuels.

While coal won’t be completely replaced anytime soon, projects like Savion’s previously proposed solar-field development along U.S. 127 near Harrodsburg would produce much power from a small field – considering it would have sat on only 1,200 of Mercer County’s 136,000 acres of farmland.

With the evidence of solar’s promise, how could the Mercer County Fiscal Court deny a text amendment last October allowing the project to move forward? The positive impact on the community would be huge.

Since large industry is moving toward solar, Kentucky counties, including Mercer, need to get on board or be left behind in the race for economic growth.

It’s good news that Mercer’s leaders are now considering other legislative options for such developments.

This isn’t about creating more Solyndra’s – projects destined for bankruptcy despite being propped up by government handouts.

Rather, it’s about Savion and other private companies like Nashville-based Silicon Ranch – which is constructing a 1,600-acre solar array near Russellville to produce power for General Motors Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green and Facebook’s data center in Gallatin, Tenn. – building profitable operations while contributing hundreds of millions to local economies, providing multitudes of solid construction jobs and producing enough energy to impress even the most ardent skeptic.

In neighboring Ohio, for example, the 4,000 megawatts of power produced by two dozen solar farms under construction will offer the equivalent of at least two full traditional power plants and produce one-seventh of the Buckeye State’s total electricity.

By embracing such plentiful but inexpensive power, Kentucky would have a clean, renewable supply of energy, allowing it to continue – as it’s done with coal – boasting some of the nation’s cheapest energy rates, keeping utility costs low and rendering ineffective calls for economically harmful policies like raising gas taxes for needed revenues.

Not only would Mercer County have reaped the benefit of Savion’s initial $150 million investment in the venture but also would have received $260,000 annually in direct payments from the company for the next quarter-century, in addition to boosting its local economies during months of construction.

Five solar projects Savion is currently building in Wisconsin and Virginia involve 1,100 construction workers who boost local economies where they’re working each day.

The Silicon Ranch solar farm will get built by 450 workers.

What will having hundreds of well-paid construction workers around do for the lunch crowd at Slappyz Family Diner near historic Russellville’s downtown square?

There will be many longer-term benefits, including providing a new cash crop for Kentucky families who had faced losing – or being forced to sell – farms which had been in their families for generations.

Yet with such promise comes opposition, much of which seems based on misnomers, like charges that Kentucky’s rolling hills and farmland will get completely plastered over by ugly solar fields.

However, these projects only work on flat, level land next to transmission lines, meaning a small fraction of existing farmland even qualifies.

Another misconception: these projects take the land completely out of operation.

Not true.

Over 400 acres – more than a third – of the previously proposed Mercer County project could still have been farmed after being built.

Sure, some issues will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction – like a neighbor having his back-porch view altered by a solar field.

But even then, it behooves companies to follow the example set by Savion and Silicon, which addressed such concerns as much as possible, including offering setbacks or fencing for projects even though such steps aren’t required.

Solar, like all industries, must compete in the marketplace and succeed or fail on its own merits without government intervention.

But solar companies also must be free to sign contracts with landowners without interference from that same government.

State-level siting boards, which must also approve solar fields, should seek to avoid dragging their proverbial feet by expediting solid plans with much promise.

Neither should solar projects nor the property rights of farmers who want to lease land to these companies be endangered by zealous county planning and zoning officers, or other local and state officials who simply don’t want change.

Seeing a few acres of Kentucky farmland become solar fields will be a change.

But it should be a welcomed one, considering its potential to power our commonwealth toward a brighter future.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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