- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2019

The latest ranking of the “friendliest” states for developing solar energy has been released, adding momentum to the industry’s boom across the U.S.

But while some continue embracing solar as the renewable energy savior destined to reverse climate change, criticism is growing over the toll that massive solar panel installations are starting to take on the environment, especially in agricultural states.

Utility-scale solar energy facilities pose a host of challenges to farming communities, with the positive hype surrounding solar often drowning out deeper issues, critics say.

“It is an overwhelming task to take on an industry that everyone thinks is going to save the world,” said Ron Heiniger, a crop science professor at North Carolina State University.

Mr. Heiniger said North Carolina, which is one of the top solar energy-producing states, is becoming ground zero in a “neighbor against neighbor” battle between rural communities and renewable energy developers.

Large-scale solar farms occupy a lot of land, forcing farmers out of areas that could be used for agriculture. What’s more, solar energy plants pay more to lease farmland that tenant farmers can earn from planting, harvesting and selling crops.

Mr. Heiniger and other agricultural experts worry that the plight of farmers is being overlooked in policy battles over the renewable energy market in Washington.

Policy analysts say that volatility in the solar market has emerged in part from the Trump administration’s push last year to slow solar’s development by slapping tariffs on imported solar panels and the White House’s bid to revitalize the coal industry, as well as varying regulations from state to state.

This week, energy resource website Solar Power Rocks released its 2019 state-by-state ranking of “solar friendliness.” Massachusetts came out on top in terms of regulatory environment, while Alabama was ranked the worst.

States and other jurisdictions are competing to attract the solar industry in the name of combating climate change: Last year California approved requiring all new homes built in 2020 to include rooftop solar panels. Just before Christmas, the D.C. Council enacted legislation to require energy consumption in the nation’s capital to be 100 percent renewable by 2032.

In addition, national polls show that most homeowners support the use of rooftop solar panels. Today, more than 2 million U.S. homes sport solar panels, which produce almost 10 times more solar energy than they did in 2010.

But residential rooftop panels account for less than 1 percent of overall U.S. electricity use.

Despite that, the Solar Energy Industries Association remains upbeat that the future is solar.

“Solar is a disruptive technology that is shaking up the status quo of America’s electricity markets,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, told The Washington Times in an email.

“The primary reason is that solar costs are down 70 percent since 2010,” Ms. Hopper added. “Along the way, our industry has created more than 250,000 American jobs and billions of dollars in annual investment.”

In November, MIT researchers released a study that identified key factors behind the declining cost of solar power since 1980, finding that government policy “played a critical role.”

Meanwhile, the competition for sunshine has led to industrial pollution of local waters as utilities use herbicides around solar panel fields.

And the rapid growth of utility-scale solar energy facilities has come at an extreme price for some wildlife. Each year about 6,000 birds are unintentionally burned to death at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert of Southern California — the world’s largest solar thermal facility, environmentalists say.


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