Solar plants draw concerns from Louisiana farmers, officials

The push to build solar plants in Louisiana has been drawing increasing scrutiny
Solar farm, solar panels
Posted at 1:26 PM, Jun 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-21 13:26:59-04

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- The push to build solar plants in Louisiana has been drawing increasing scrutiny from state lawmakers and local officials, who say farmers fear being crowded out of land leases by solar companies with deeper pockets.

The Advocate reports at least three parishes -- West Baton Rouge, Tangipahoa and Washington -- have issued moratoriums on utility-scale solar projects. Some legislative leaders also took aim at solar developments in the recently ended legislative session, trying to halt property tax breaks for such projects.

Those involved in the debate hope a bill by Republican Sen. Bret Allain, of Franklin, will help resolve the issues by requiring the Department of Natural Resources to craft regulations for utility-scale solar plants. Still, proponents of solar worry the pushback will have a chilling effect on the nascent but fast-growing industry.

Lawmakers passed a resolution from GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder asking the Louisiana Department of Economic Development to stop issuing tax incentives for solar projects through the Industrial Tax Exemption Program until next summer.

The agency will ask the Board of Commerce and Industry, which votes on industrial tax breaks, to review the request. But Anya Hudnall, a spokesperson for the economic development department, said the agency and Gov. John Bel Edwards "are generally supportive of and encourage and invite renewable energy investments in our state as we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

For years, Louisiana farmers had little competition for land. Now, solar companies are snapping up options for land where they could potentially build developments -- and are able to pay much more to the landowners per acre than farmers usually do. Farmers are worried about being crowded out.

The Senate's second-ranking Republican, Franklinton Sen. Beth Mizell, plans a public hearing later this month where farmers and others concerned about solar developments can air their grievances.

During the legislative session, Mizell said farmers in Washington Parish came to her with "tears in their eyes" because of fears over solar developments. She suggested solar developments could "erase the character" of farming communities and undermine the fossil fuels industry in Louisiana.

"I thought we were an oil and gas state the whole time I've been here," Mizell said.

Proponents of solar developments say such concerns are misplaced.

Stephen Wright, executive director of Gulf States Renewable Energy Industry Association, told The Advocate that even if Louisiana had the same share of energy coming from solar as California - when in fact it has far less - the solar developments would still take up less than 1% of available farmland in Louisiana.

Wright called the legislative resolutions and parish pauses on solar projects a setback.

"But we're viewing it honestly as an education opportunity. Because the major developments in Louisiana have just sprung up in the last couple years," he said. "I think a lot of people just don't have a grasp on the opportunity yet."

Major Thibaut, president of Pointe Coupee Parish, negotiated with a subsidiary of British Petroleum to land a large $300 million solar plant in his area, near False River.

But Thibaut said farmers in his area have raised a range of concerns. He said he's had to debunk misinformation about the projects, such as some farmers' worry that mercury from the solar panels would pollute the land and make it unusable forever.

Thibaut thinks the pushback to solar is sending a "bad message" and could drive away big investments.

"We'll survive on agriculture," Thibaut said of his parish. "But there comes a point in time where we've got to diversify."