Editor: I was hoping that the March 27 front-page article “On-Farm Solar to Power State Government” was an early April Fools’ Day joke by Lancaster Farming. Unfortunately, it was not ... but it would have been a good one.
As I read the article, I hoped that I would somehow be convinced that developing perfectly good Pennsylvania farmland into solar farms is somehow good for the state and its farmers. I think there are a couple things in the article that give me reason for concern.
The article says that 400 construction jobs will be created. I know from experience that when Pennsylvania invests taxpayer money into projects, job creation is particularly important, as it should be. But these are temporary construction jobs.
If we use a simple formula that 2 acres supports one cow and 2,000 acres go into solar for this project, then 1,000 cows would not be supported.
We know that every 10 cows supports one full-time job in Pennsylvania. Using this formula, 100 permanent agriculture jobs will be eliminated by this project in Year One.
That is a lot of permanent jobs to give up for 400 one-to-two-year temporary construction jobs. If I decide to put our farm in solar and lay off our 23 full-time employees, is that a win for Pennsylvania?
There is probably a good reason that the four sunniest states — Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California — don’t have their government facilities 50% powered by solar. I presume it does not make financial sense.
But Pennsylvania, which ranks near the bottom third of the sunniest states, is willing to take perfectly good farmland and use it to inefficiently power government buildings.
I suspect that the “very competitive” rate that Lightsource bp is giving Pennsylvania to power its buildings is not competitive at all. If they were actually saving PA taxpayers money, it would have been the first thing they would have informed us about.
The real concerning thing about all this is not the 2,000 acres of solar that will be supporting half of the state government’s electricity needs, but the thousands and thousands of other acres in Pennsylvania that are already contracted or are being considered for solar.
On a Penn State webinar last fall, it was stated that high-end estimates have potential for 80,000 acres of Pennsylvania land going into solar. That is insane.
Pennsylvania farmland is better suited for farming, not solar. A whole generation of farmers will disappear.
I’m 35 and I will never have the opportunity to farm land that is leased to solar if the terms last 30 years. Anyone in my age bracket and older faces the same reality.
This is going to create more competition for already scarce farmland and make it even harder to farm in this state.
I am not against solar and green energy. I predict in the years to come, most of our barn roofs will have solar. Even below-average farmland on our farm is a realistic place to put solar, but the farms that I know that are going to solar are not poor farmland, and I think that is where Pennsylvania is getting it wrong.
I certainly place no blame toward the farmers that are signing up their farms to solar. On paper, it provides an incredibly lucrative income stream and nice source of retirement. It is a no-brainer.
If I owned 1,000 acres, I could make over $1 million a year. If I could do that, I would probably move to a state that is actually ... well ... sunny.
But then if I’m hit with a (currently not real) “solar impact tax” or the government solar subsidies disappear, then maybe leasing solar wouldn’t look as lucrative. My concern is that a lot can change in 30 years.
Here’s the way I see it: Pennsylvania’s government is using taxpayer money to purchase power at a higher-than-average price from a British-headquartered company (Lightsource bp), to buy solar panels that are probably not made in Pennsylvania, to develop good Pennsylvania farmland and to create 400 temporary jobs in order to become more energy independent but more food-insecure.
I don’t think Pennsylvania gets any long-term benefits on this arrangement. And this is just one solar project that is moving forward in Pennsylvania.
There are a lot of things that do not make sense in this world right now ... this is one of these things.