Read this before you lease land for a solar project

By Don “Doc” Sanders

In this column I cover important matters to consider if you or your farmer friends are approached about leasing acreage for a solar array project. In preparation for this column, I have spent time reading about solar energy and talking with experts who assist in developing solar panel projects. 

I offer this disclaimer: The conditions I discuss here don’t cover every situation. 

Each potential solar project has unique factors to consider, including the landscape and environment. I usually don’t advocate for solar farm projects, nor do I come right out and oppose them. But I do recommend that you conduct due diligence before you decide whether to commit any of your land to a solar project. 

Here’s the lowdown…

Solar panels generate electricity, on average, about a third of each day, depending on the weather, including the amount of sunshine, and the project’s engineering. Seventeen acres of solar panels generate about the same amount of electricity as one wind turbine. While you can’t farm land that’s used for a solar installation, I have seen a number of wind turbine farms that continue to be cropped.

The Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) oversees the application and review process to make sure that solar array installations and other utility projects meet requirements before they can be constructed. My sources tell me that only recently has the OPSB begun to demonstrate relevance. 

The OPSB historically has relied on engineers who have little to no credentials in the requirements for agricultural drainage systems. It has been reported that these engineers consistently undersize the drainage requirements by as much as two-thirds. Reliance on their “expert” opinions have created major issues in some counties in Ohio. 

It’s mistakenly assumed that because they have a degree, they gotta be right! I know that they say that about veterinarians, too.

There isn’t an adequate legal process in place to resolve issues over solar fields. They are ultimately resolved in a courthouse after a long period of posturing and bellyaching.

For this reason, I recommend: Never sign an agreement to install a solar project without first retaining an attorney experienced in green energy to review and research the proposal. 

Having been court-appointed to provide expert testimony in several livestock cases, I can report that legal specialists do not come cheap. They may cost an arm and a leg, but if you don’t use one of these experts, the project likely will cost you more than an arm and a leg. (An expert in the green energy field backs me on this assertion.)

Advocates of solar energy rarely talk about the potential risks of solar installations to a farm, for instance, disruption of a farm’s drainage system or drainage of nearby property. Topographical maps — preferably using Google Earth — are essential for evaluating farm features and drainage when considering whether a solar project is feasible. These maps can help you determine if a proposed project is at the upper or lower end of a drainage plain and whether the farm drainage can be maintained once the project is installed. Leveling by as much as one or two feet is common after a solar array is installed.  The OPSB specifies that leveling of a solar panel site must be minimized during construction.

You should also have an independent drainage contractor evaluate the solar project plan and adjacent field tile drainage systems. Waterways and creeks have the potential to be disrupted if planning has not covered every source of water flow.  

Nothing becomes more frustrating to neighboring farmers than to have their field drainage systems damaged or destroyed by new solar panel installations — or by underground cables that carry electricity from solar installations to electric substations or roadways constructed to provide service access. Without proper planning and design, solar installations can turn neighbors into enemies. 

Proper consideration must also be made for the types of trees planted on the borders of solar fields. Before signing a contract, identify the landscaping contractor and the proposed species of trees to be planted. Some tree species are notorious for sending out roots into drainage systems. 

Adjacent houses should have non-perforated drainage tile to prevent tree roots from growing into the tile and causing water to backflow into basements and crawl spaces. 

My drainage contractor, whom I have used for years, reports that some solar panel contractors rarely check agricultural or adjacent residential drainage issues before construction. It is entirely up to the farm owner to ensure that the drainage system is undisturbed by a solar panel installation.

Roads are constructed through solar fields to permit service trucks access to the solar panels. The roads are built by skimming off the topsoil and spreading a stone, sand and cement powder combination. Rainfall causes this blend to harden like a concrete road, so these access roads can complicate returning a solar field to cropland when the solar panels wear out in 15 to 20 years. 

And there’s more to consider.

When a solar farm is returned to cropland, all solar panel posts must be cut off three feet below ground level and extracted. Underground electrical circuitry is not removed, however, as it is allegedly three feet underground.

What is done with the solar panels when their 20-year life is over? So far, no one has a viable proposal. In the meantime, our country has a 200-year supply of clean-burning natural gas, which could be used to fill the gap until we get a better grip on solar or hydrogen power, or tapping into geothermal power far beneath the earth’s surface. But very few members in government are listening.

For my two cents worth, electricity will become far more expensive as our attention is turned to green energy. Perhaps I should buy a retired standardbred race horse to pull a high-wheeled wagon and point myself toward an Amish lifestyle. If a horse hasn’t won any races, a retired standardbred can be purchased pretty cheap, which is an additional bonus to not having an electric bill.

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