Planned solar projects, land use debates divide southern Delaware
This story was produced by the Delaware Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of local news and community organizations working to bridge divides statewide that includes Delaware Business Times. 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. 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. When she found out the offer was legit — 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 just one in the latest 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,” 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 has been installed statewide, according to the Solar Delaware website, an educational tool launched in recent years by Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility, better known as Energize Delaware. Drew Slater, the nonprofit corporation’s executive director, said that number could likely double in the next two years as a spate of new projects come 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. While the focus is largely on southern Delaware, New Castle County officials are also seeing similar trends: with 330 acres of solar already approved, another 338 acres have been proposed to include solar projects.
“We’re seeing robust interest in solar,” 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 damages 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 efforts are facing universal challenges of acceptance and 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 Clifton, who also serves as 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 existing buildings to help offset the costs of heating and cooling poultry houses. Others are installing panels to power their pivot irrigation systems. And still others are gravitating toward “community solar” projects, which are meant to serve multiple area customers — at least 15% of whom are considered low-income, according to Senate Bill 2 — that 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, he said. And many members of the organization have different feelings about it, depending on which 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,” Clifton 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 non-farming 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 outside of the general business district. In agricultural areas of the county, only community solar projects under 50 acres are now permitted. Meanwhile, several proposed large-scale projects otherwise banned by the county are tied up in court.
Now-State Sen. Eric Buckson, a Republican representing a swath of eastern Kent County, was a member of 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 farm 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 by a farmer will net 10 to 20 times that in 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 the agricultural community,” 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 (IPCC) has repeatedly made the case that there is no time to wait to act on climate change driven by human-created greenhouse gasses. Limiting global temperatures to an increase of just 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-Industrial levels – the benchmark at which scientists have said must be met to curb irreversible climate change impacts – would require immediate action. Even keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius would require emissions to plateau in the next two years.
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 what 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 Donna 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 grew vegetables on the hundreds of acres just outside of 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 of the project has been continually delayed. While it’s received approval from the 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 and 12 other surrounding states and the District of Columbia. PJM has been battling a backlog of project applications for over a year now.
In the meantime, Donnie 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 the land is on hold for the development of the solar farm project, making it risky to further invest in any pricey equipment like new irrigation, but also because of the rising costs 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 on the agricultural land 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 a year. That’s a boost in tax revenue for Sussex County, without the added pressures of more traffic or people that would come from a housing development instead.
Meanwhile, Kent County has seen 15 community solar applications and one utility-scale project proposed since 2021. Nine community solar applications were submitted in 2022 and only three so far in 2023, according to Kent County Planning Director Sarah Keifer.
In Sussex County, 45 applications for solar farms have been submitted since 2021, and all but three were for projects on parcels under 100 acres. Most have been for community solar projects, and 10 of those 45 proposed projects have been approved by county officials.
Five of those approved projects in Sussex, totaling 17 megawatts, are being spearheaded by Denver, Colorado-based TurningPoint Energy (TPE), which said last year that it was 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 TPE and other developers in either county have come online yet, according to county officials. The lack of actual action on the ground — at least so far — is a common trend not only in Delaware but the 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 exactly that is. Donnie Calhoun voiced the same concern about the Freeman Project, questioning whether it was an overburdening 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,” Donnie Calhoun 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, 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 between left and right in recent years, so does the farming community.
“I think there’s very few people today that don’t believe there’s something going on regarding climate change,” 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 County are seemingly embracing it since much of the open spaces not already preserved by the state or county’s natural or agricultural preservation programs have already been gobbled up by housing developments. And others like Clifton and environmentalists embrace the idea as a solution to energy efficiency in a time when extreme heat and wildfire smoke, driven by a changing climate, threaten parts of the country in a way not seen before.
“I think I’m helping with the footprint of carbon,” said Milford’s Donna 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.”
But she said 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 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.”