This letter was submitted to LebTown. Read LebTown’s submission policy here.
“Family Farms Not Solar Farms” read the yard signs sprinkled along Rt. 934 and other public roads in North Annville Township.
Better, more accurate yard signs would read: “Solar Farms Are Family Farms.”
The signs refer to a proposal to install some 600 acres worth of solar panels on 12 parcels of land owned by nine local farmers. The solar farm is being proposed by Lebanon Solar I, part of the Italy-based multinational energy giant Enel. Enel has identified these dozen properties in North Annville Township mainly because of the adjacent high-voltage power line running east-west, part of the larger Eastern Interconnection grid into which this sun-produced electricity will feed.
The project’s opponents have focused on a cluster of harms it will allegedly cause. The proposed solar farm, it is argued, will be: (1) an ugly industrial site that (2) brings no public benefit to the township but instead (3) depresses property values, (4) destroys farmland, and (5) harms wildlife.
None of these arguments hold up on closer inspection.
Let’s ignore for now the existential threat to human civilization—the “code red for humanity” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres—of human-caused global climate change from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Let’s ignore for now the increasingly extreme storms and floods and wildfires and megadroughts and heat waves and oceanic die-offs caused by human greenhouse gas emissions and the urgent need to rapidly transition to renewable energy sources. Let’s ignore for now the looming threat to the continuing existence of modern industrial civilization resulting from our addiction to fossil fuels.
Instead let’s look more closely at the short list of narrow issues spotlighted by the project’s opponents.
1. The solar farm will be an ugly industrial site. North Annville Township residents have a right to view a bucolic, rural landscape. This is a hollow argument and NIMBYism at its finest. Fact is, ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Many people, myself included, look at solar arrays and see something aesthetically pleasing. The project’s opponents are basically trying to impose their version of what’s attractive and unattractive on their neighbors and everyone else.
More pointedly, despite the language used on the flier produced by the project’s opponents, the self-styled “Lebanon County Citizens for Agricultural Preservation (LCCAP),” a solar farm is in no sense an “industrial site.” A collection of ground-based solar panel arrays is many things, but an “industrial site” is not one of them. The panels are essentially inert: silent, immobile, non-toxic, generating no emissions or waste products, just sitting there feeding electricity into the grid every day from dawn to dusk.
The panels will not generate “glare” from the sun. That is a fallacy. Solar panels are designed to capture the sun’s rays, not reflect them. Besides which, Lebanon Solar has pledged to install vegetative screening around homes adjacent to the project if they ask for it. The “this solar farm will be ugly and I have a right to look out my window and see cows and cornfields” argument is frankly absurd.
2. The project will bring no public benefit to the township. This was the gist of the baseless assertions made by project opponent Grady Summers in his op-ed hit-job published on Aug. 19 in LebTown, in which he crunched a slew of speculative numbers while groundlessly accusing Lebanon Solar’s representatives of lying.
Let’s look at some real numbers. The Lebanon County Assessment Office estimates that the project will generate more than $300,000 in new tax revenue annually, to be distributed to the county and school district. It is estimated that some 80% of that total—$240,000 per year—will go to the Annville-Cleona School District. That’s nearly four times the $66,045 annual contribution imagined by Summers. Based on a typical 2% annual increase, these estimates indicate more than $15 million in tax payments over a 35-year typical design life. That’s a whole lot of public benefit to both the county and the local school district.
3. The project will depress property values. In fact, a wide array of evidence demonstrates that large solar farms have no negative impact on the value of adjacent properties. For example, a rigorous 49-page study of a comparable solar farm proposed for Augusta County, VA, completed in June 2020 by real estate consultants Christian P. Kaila & Associates of Fredericksburg, VA, concludes: “It is our professional opinion that the proposed solar [farm] will not adversely affect the value of adjoining or abutting property.” Pages 12-21 of this rigorous study cite more than a dozen comparable studies from around the country that reach the same conclusion: that large solar farms generate no negative impact on the market value of nearby properties (see here for PDF).
4. The project will destroy farmland. In fact, the opposite is true: the project will preserve farmland. At the end of the project’s projected 35-year life, the slender metal posts on which the solar arrays will sit can be easily removed, and what’s underneath will be regenerated soil that’s lain fallow for decades and perfectly suited for farming. The notion that the project will “destroy farmland” is patently false.
5. The project will harm wildlife. Much ado has been made of the 6-foot chain link fence that will surround the solar panels and its imagined effects on wildlife. Funny how concerns about wildlife never seem to come up when farmland is bulldozed to build new warehouses, housing developments, commercial properties, chicken houses, and the like.
To address the issue directly, the fence’s impact on wildlife will be minimal. Birds and bats will fly over it, squirrels scamper over or through it. Moles, voles, shrews, mice, and chipmunks won’t even notice it. Rabbits, fox, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, skunks, and other small critters will likely dig under it. Deer, coyotes, and any other big critters will go around it. The project will not “harm” wildlife in any meaningful sense of the word.
A short time ago, I asked a conservative property owner in South Annville Township what was “conservative” about all the warehouses and housing developments springing up across the township and county. “A genuine ‘conservative’ would want to conserve the land as it is, wouldn’t they?” I asked in genuine puzzlement. “All these housing developments and other radical changes to the landscape don’t seem very ‘conservative’ to me.”
He explained: what’s “conservative” is conserving the rights of property owners to use their property as they see fit. That’s the vision of “conservative” that inspired him to not oppose these developments, even as he didn’t necessarily support them. What he supported was minimal restrictions on property rights.
It’s the same issue here. The farmers who’ve signed agreements with Lebanon Solar are exercising their right to use their farms as they see fit, in a way that will not harm their neighbors or anyone else. Most will opt to continue to own their land, no one will get hurt, and they, the township, the county, our local school district, the soil, and the environment will all benefit.
The solar farm proposed for North Annville Township will help to preserve family farms—but one of its many benefits as we transition to a carbon-free future.
For Lebanon Solar’s project in North Annville Township, solar farms are family farms.
Michael Schroeder is Professor of History at Lebanon Valley College