Will farms see solar arrays instead of soybeans?

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Dover's SUN Park has a field of solar panels.
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By Maddy Lauria

This story was produced by the Delaware Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of local news and community organizations working to bridge divides statewide. Members include Delaware Business Now. Learn more at ljidelaware.org/collaborative.

At first, Donna Calhoun ignored the calls.

But, one day a few years ago, after returning home from vacation, the lifelong Milford-area resident decided to answer the phone.

“I said, ‘What do you want?’ This poor guy was persistent,” she recalled with a laugh.

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Donna Calhoun of Milford has contracted with Brookfield Properties to develop part of her family’s land as a solar array.

It was a representative from the international development company Brookfield Properties, calling to see if she’d be interested in leasing her share of the family farm to build a utility-scale solar project. (Brookfield owns Christiana Mall near Newark and, like many other companies, is looking to solar as a way to become carbon neutral).

When she found out the offer was legitimate — and so was the money — she agreed.

Now, Brookfield is planning to build the Freeman Solar project on about 351 acres along Calhoun Road, on the outskirts of Milford. It’s one of the latest efforts in a wave of solar farms proposed for southern Delaware, likely stimulated in part by state mandates to increase the amount of power that comes from renewable energy sources, like solar.

“It’s going to create less traffic, less impact to the environment than housing developments, basically,” Ms. Calhoun said of Sussex County’s feedback on the proposal. “They’re happy about us going forward. When it’s over, the ground can go back to farm ground.”

It will also mean more income for the Calhoun family. Without providing exact contract numbers, she said the rental revenue is more lucrative than leasing the land for agricultural purposes.

To date, about 172 megawatts of solar power have been installed statewide, according to the Solar Delaware website, an educational tool launched in recent years by the Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility, better known as Energize Delaware.

Drew Slater, the nonprofit’s executive director, said that number could likely double in the next two years, as a spate of projects comes online.

“That’s the significance of what’s being planned and what we see from a financing perspective,” he said. To date, $505 million has been invested in solar in Delaware, according to Solar Delaware. And, while the focus is largely on southern Delaware, New Castle County officials are seeing similar trends: With 330 acres of solar already approved, another 338 acres have been proposed.

“We’re seeing robust interest in solar,” Mr. Slater said. “I think there’s this renewed focus on how to reduce our carbon footprint, whether it’s energy efficiency or solar.”

As the nation races to find energy solutions that would help offset the climate damage done by burning fossil fuels, the First State is also looking for ways to spur more renewable energy in its own backyard. Here, the race to net zero is no different. But the efforts are facing universal challenges of acceptance, as well as delays in connecting to the country’s segmented energy grid.

Challenges on the ground

In the eyes of William “Don” Clifton, a third-generation Sussex County farmer, “the use of farmland for energy is pretty much eternal.”

“In the cities, 120 to 150 years ago, the transportation was either foot traffic or by carriage or by horse,” said Mr. Clifton, who also serves as the executive director of the Delaware Farm Bureau. “And all those animals had to eat something. All that was grown on a farm somewhere. So the use of farmland for energy is not unusual. It’s just we’re looking at it in a different context now.”

He said he sees many farmers, particularly those in the poultry industry, adding solar panels to the roofs of their building to help balance the cost of heating and cooling them. Others are installing panels to power their pivot irrigation systems. And still others are gravitating toward “community solar” projects, meant to serve multiple area customers — at least 15% of whom are considered low-income, according to Senate Bill 2. Such initiatives are seemingly gaining popularity in Kent and Sussex counties as a way for property owners to hold on to their land, while also taking advantage of a new revenue stream.

As of now, the Delaware Farm Bureau has no set policy regarding the establishment of solar arrays on farmland, Mr. Clifton said. He added that many members have different feelings about it, depending on the lens they are looking through.

“A property rights purist believes that a landowner, especially a farmer, should be able to establish whatever business opportunity exists on their own farmland,” he said. “Now, there are others in our membership community who have an aversion to the establishment of solar on farmland, in part because of the perception of it as being a nonfarming activity and a degradation of farmland. So some of it is a perception thing. Some of it is a history thing.”

In central Delaware, where the development pressure isn’t as strong as it is in Sussex County, elected officials recently placed a moratorium on utility-scale solar facilities except in the general business district. Outside of that permitted zone, in agricultural areas of the county, only community solar projects under 50 acres are allowed. Meanwhile, several proposed large enterprises, otherwise banned by the county, are tied up in court.

Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Camden, was a member of Kent County Levy Court when the moratorium was approved. His argument at the time — and today — is that solar companies can and will pay a higher price to lease agricultural lands, effectively pricing out farmers who would otherwise rent fields for a fraction of the cost. He said, in some cases, land in Kent County that’s being rented for a couple hundred dollars per acre will net 10 to 20 times that via a solar company contract.

“The agricultural community, as well as residents in the area, effectively reached out to us and conveyed their concerns that it would harm that industry, the agricultural community,” Sen. Buckson said. He said the state’s laws establishing community solar and increasing the renewable portfolio standard created a “market driven by a government mandate.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly made the case that there is no time to wait to act on climate change driven by human-created greenhouse gases. Limiting global temperatures to an increase of just 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels — the benchmark that scientists have said must be met to curb irreversible climate change impacts — would require immediate action. Even keeping warming to 2 degrees C would require emissions to plateau in the next two years.

However, Sen. Buckson said the issue isn’t necessarily trying to “go green.” The problem, he said, “is the pace and the push and the force at (which) we’re doing it.”

A slow start to a solar future

Not everyone is open to the idea of farm fields being filled with solar instead of soybeans. That includes Ms. Calhoun’s older brother, Donnie Calhoun, whose 125 acres of fields are included in the batch of land slated for the Freeman Solar project.

“I’m not holding my breath on this,” he said. “Whether it comes or it doesn’t, it’s good with me either way.”

The lifelong farmer, whose father and grandfather also grew vegetables on the hundreds of acres just outside Milford city limits, agreed to the proposed leasing of the property after the farm was broken up in the wake of their father’s passing over a decade ago.

But, in the years since signing a contract with Brookfield, the building has been continually delayed. While it’s received approval from Sussex County, the project is now in the queue with thousands of others hoping to connect to the electric grid through PJM, the regional transmission organization that coordinates the electric grid for Delaware, 12 other surrounding states and the District of Columbia. PJM has been battling a backlog of project applications for over a year now.

Meantime, Mr. Calhoun keeps on farming. Ironically, this year saw the best crop of peas he’s planted in 50 years. But continuing to farm the land is becoming less feasible, not only because it’s on hold for the solar project — making it risky to further invest in any pricey equipment like new irrigation — but also because of the rising cost of staying in agriculture.

“Last year, just to give you an idea, our fertilizer cost doubled, and my chemical cost tripled,” he said. “And our products … never even come close to doubling or tripling.”

But, because the solar company planning to develop his fields into a solar array had to get a conditional use to do so, taxes on his land have drastically changed. He said the bill on his 125 acres went from about $800 a year to $15,000 annually. That’s a boost in tax revenue for Sussex County, without the added pressure of more traffic or people that would come from a housing development.

In Kent County, there have been 15 community solar applications and one utility-scale project proposed since 2021. Nine community requests were submitted in 2022 and only three so far this year, according to Kent County planning director Sarah Keifer.

Forty-five applications for solar farms have been submitted since 2021 in Sussex, and all but three were for construction on parcels under 100 acres. Most have been for community solar, and 10 of those 45 proposed projects have been approved by county officials.

Five of those approved efforts in Sussex, totaling 17 megawatts, are being spearheaded by Denver-based TurningPoint Energy, which said in a summer 2022 press release that it is expanding into Delaware specifically because of the community solar legislation passed by the state in 2021.

Meanwhile, none of the recently approved solar farms proposed by TurningPoint and others in either county have come online yet, according to county officials. Just one has broken ground, in Kent. The lack of actual action on the ground — at least so far — is a common trend, not only in Delaware but in the entire region, said PJM’s chief communications officer Susan Buehler.

“We have a backlog of projects ready to go that aren’t getting built,” she said, adding that it’s unknown why. Mr. Calhoun voiced the same concern about the Freeman Project, questioning whether it is an overburden of regulations or ongoing challenges with the supply chain.

“I feel like, you know, some of the people that are in charge of all this stuff, they really don’t give a rip about us,” he said. “They could care less about us, in this country that was made by the people and for the people.”

An array of hope?

The delays in projects being built and the differing opinions on where solar farms are appropriate is not unique to Delaware, and neither is the concern about the changing character of agricultural communities, Mr. Clifton said.

“There’s so many aspects to it, and there’s even family feuds about part of this,” he said. “There’s all kinds of levels and overlapping interests and overlapping concerns. It’s a ticklish subject. And it’s nationwide.”

It’s also linked to politics, he said. Just as the general population finds itself more and more polarized in recent years, so do farmers.

“I think there’s very few people today that don’t believe there’s something going on regarding climate change,” Mr. Clifton said. “Where there’s a lot of disagreement is whether the human act of burning fossil fuels has anything to do with that.

“Nobody trusts anybody anymore. If you believe in the need for government regulations to improve human health and protect human health and our children and grandchildren and so forth, some people will (try to) convince you of ill will and vice versa. There was a time when we trusted people in authority to do the right thing.”

While some in Kent County argue how solar farms would irreparably change the agricultural character and heritage of the area, others in Sussex are seemingly embracing it, as much of the open space not already preserved by the state or county has been gobbled up by housing developments. And others, like Mr. Clifton and environmentalists, embrace the idea as a means of energy efficiency in a time when extreme heat and wildfire smoke threaten parts of the country in a way not seen before.

“I think I’m helping with the footprint of carbon,” said Ms. Calhoun. “We really truly are trying to get to better solutions for ourselves. Coal, fossil fuels — it’s just not good for us, and we’ve known it forever. I’m happy to help. I’m able to help.”

She’s not sure how her late father would feel about her decision to lease the family land to a solar farm developer instead of to a fellow farmer. But, she said, it was the best decision she could make for her family looking at the numbers in front of her — and her dad would have probably seen the reality in the numbers, too.

“My dad was probably a very move-forward type of guy,” she said. “This will be a multigenerational solar farm if it all works out.”

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