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Energy Environment Insider Only Kent County News

In Kent County, the future of solar relies on land use

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Kent Count officials are weighing how to handle large-scale solar projects after
the state boosted its target renewable energy rate to 40% by 2035. | PHOTO
COURTESY OF ZBYNEK BURIVAL/UNSPLASH.

Kent County commissioners want to ensure that the rolling farmlands of central Delaware stay filled with corn, soybeans and other crops — which is why they say they’ve been battling large-scale utility solar projects for nearly a year.

While a moratorium on such projects, which could bring hundreds of acres of solar panels to the county, expired on June 8, commissioners are still eyeing options to limit large projects while still supporting smaller solar ventures and property rights — especially those of the county’s farming families. Two of the three major projects that sparked county concerns in the last year are now tied up in court.

“We’re not against solar. We support solar,” Kent County Commissioner Joanne Masten told the Delaware Business Times. “I can’t speak for everybody else, but I know the majority of Levy Court is not really gungho about having utility solar on our precious farmland.”

But as solar project requests have skyrocketed in recent years, the regional transmission organization that coordinates the electrical grid in Delaware and 12 other states as well as the District of Columbia, PJM Interconnection LLC, is struggling to keep up. In spring 2022, PJM instituted its own two-year moratorium on project connections, citing a tripling of requests since 2018. Their backlog included more than 1,200 projects submitted before 2021, according to a press statement.

Even if anyone was still interested in bringing a large-scale utility solar project to Kent County, they’d face a significant regional challenge of getting online.

“There are still areas of the county where someone could pursue utility solar,” County Planning Director Sarah Keifer said during a July 19 Levy Court meeting. “No one is applying for it. No one is talking to us about new large-scale [solar]. All of the interest has been in the community.”

In the last year, Kent County has received nine new applications for smaller community solar projects, which are limited to 50 acres or less, said Keifer. Of the remaining six, two have already received approval.

“There’s a good chance a few more are getting ready,” Keifer told DBT.

The real problem with large-scale solar projects, Kent County Commissioner Eric Buckson told DBT, is that a state law passed in 2021 mandating that Delaware utility companies source at least 40% of their energy from renewable sources by 2035 has sparked an industry that didn’t previously exist locally — and for which Kent County decision-makers weren’t prepared to handle.

“When the state of Delaware, a government, creates a mandated program, that’s not the free market competing,” Buckson said. “That’s the free market competing to take away agricultural lands.”

Buckson said Kent County Levy Court’s concerns do not lie in the merits of solar, but rather in the land-use decisions solar project applications are sparking. The concern, he said, is that companies leasing farmland for solar projects are willing to pay far more for that land than farmers currently charge for traditional agricultural purposes, potentially pricing out many of the long-time farmers who rely on leased land for their livelihoods.

“Land use laws were never set up to deal with a significant expansion of solar in the county,” he told DBT. “At the end of the day, it is about protecting our agricultural industry from a mandate that was going to force them to unfairly compete against a private industry.”

According to the most recent Census of Agriculture for the county, more than one-quarter of the county’s 511,000 acres of land is in active farm use, with a product market value of $391 million.

On July 19, commissioners were expected to consider an extension to their original 90-day moratorium, which was tabled due to Levy Court absences. Commissioners are possibly expected to consider an extension to the expired moratorium or new amendments to their ordinance at a future meeting.

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