For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.
Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.
Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.
“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.
The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.
Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.
“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”
Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.
The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.
Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.
Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.
Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.
Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.
“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Solar Shines for Rural Electric Co-Ops Announcement Sets New Iowa Record for Solar from Rural Electric Co-ops
Iowa’s Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) and its member cooperatives announced a major investment in solar energy today, unveiling plans to build 5.5 megawatts of new solar energy at six locations across its service territory. This will be Iowa’s largest solar project from a rural electric co-op, and it represents a 20% increase in Iowa’s total solar capacity (27 MW as of 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association).
CIPCO is Iowa’s largest cooperative energy provider, serving nearly 300,000 residents and about 12,000 commercial/industrial accounts in its 300-mile territory stretching diagonally across Iowa and touching Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
The announced projects will be built by Azimuth Energy LLC of St. Louis, MO.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Iowa installed a total of 6 MW of solar energy in 2015. That means this project alone is just shy of that annual total.
“CIPCO has taken a great step forward in providing their members access to solar energy,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Staff Attorney of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines. “CIPCO was clear that this effort is just the first phase of the rural electric cooperative’s long-term plan to incorporate solar as an additional pollution-free resource within its energy portfolio.”
Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the CIPCO announcement sends a strong signal to rural electric cooperatives across the Midwest. “The enormous potential for solar energy in states like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin is just now beginning to be realized, and rural electric cooperatives, which have strong relationships with their members, have an opportunity to lead the way.”
In the US, rural areas and constituencies have typically weighed against progress on clean energy. But that may be changing.
A new story out of Wisconsin illustrates that a slow, tentative shift is underway, as rural electricity consumers and the utilities that serve them take a new look at the benefits of solar power.
In fact, if you squint just right, you can even glimpse a future in which rural America is at the vanguard of decarbonization. The self-reliance and local jobs enabled by renewable energy are of unique value in rural areas, and rural leaders are beginning to recognize that solar isn’t just for elitist coastal hippies any more.
To appreciate what’s happening, let’s back up a bit.
Illinois is an economic winner under the new Clean Power Plan because of our state’s robust clean wind power, solar energy and energy efficiency resources and nuclear plants. The Clean Power Plans sets flexible standards for Illinois and other states to reduce carbon pollution.
Building new wind farms in central Illinois creates jobs, boosts property tax revenues for schools and local governments, and provides new income for farmers who can continue to grow corn and soybeans while gaining wind turbine lease payments. Wind power produces clean energy that grows Illinois’ economy while reducing pollution for everyone.
Energy efficiency is the best, fastest and cheapest way to reduce carbon pollution while saving homeowners money on their utility bills and businesses money that improves their bottom lines.
Illinois is now fifth in the nation for wind power capacity. Illinois is home to the nation’s largest nuclear plant fleet. Solar energy is primed to accelerate. Illinois homes and business and governmental and university buildings have untapped opportunities for highly efficient LED lighting, improved heating and cooling systems, better pumps and motors, and other modern energy efficiency technologies that save money and reduce pollution.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Illinois Clean Energy Supply Chain report identified 237 Illinois companies engaged in the solar industry supply chain, and 170 Illinois wind industry supply chain companies. These businesses employ 20,000 people across Illinois. The Clean Power Plan and renewable energy development solutions are good for jobs, good for economic growth and good for our environment.
So, what’s the problem?
Missourian Terry Jarrett’s Dec. 7 guest column attacked the Clean Power Plan that is designed to reduce carbon pollution, help grow the clean energy economy and accelerate practical climate solutions. Jarrett’s economic arguments were based on a report by “Energy Ventures Analysis” that, apparently, was commissioned by the National Mining Association, including Peabody Energy, which is headquartered in Missouri. What does one expect when the cost estimates are being generated at the behest of large coal mining companies?
Let’s set the record straight. Some coal plants in Illinois are retiring because of changing realities in the competitive electricity market: (1) low natural gas prices, (2) economical wind power, (3) affordable energy efficiency holding down electricity demand, and (4) nuclear plants for which Exelon is asking for public subsidies to keep running.
Natural gas prices are low — today, $2.02 MMBtu — and many coal plants are just not competitive on a fuel basis. That’s why Dynegy and NRG are retiring some of their coal plants that are uneconomic in the competitive power market. They are converting some other coal plants to natural gas. These corporate business decisions reflect today’s competitive market prices and reasonable near-term projections; the Clean Power Plan requirements, however, won’t take effect until 2023 at the earliest.
Electricity sales are down about 1 percent annually in Illinois due to energy efficiency. There’s a surplus of electric generating supply over demand here. That results in relatively low wholesale electricity market prices. That’s good for Illinois businesses and residents. That’s not so good for power plant owners.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s recent study determined that reaching renewable energy and energy efficiency targets already in state statutes would trigger creation of 9,600 new jobs by 2019. The study also found that investments in wind power and solar energy have “led to a dramatic increase in manufacturing jobs at renewable component manufacturers across Illinois from Peoria to Cicero, Clinton, Rockford, and Chicago.”
Illinois should benefit from cleaner air, clean jobs and economic growth that the Clean Power Plan will accelerate. Let’s be smart, move forward and seize these strategic opportunities for progress.
— Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, an environmental quality and economic development advocacy organization headquartered in Chicago.
Environmental Law & Policy Center Thanks Iowa’s Sen. Grassley for Leading Charge to Extend Federal Wind Energy Production Tax Credit
DES MOINES, Iowa – The Environmental Law & Policy Center thanks Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) for leading the charge to include the Wind Energy Production Tax Credit in the Federal Tax Extenders Package Bill, which passed out of the Senate Finance Committee today on Capitol Hill.
“Senator Grassley played a key role in Congress extending the federal wind energy production tax credit, which is helping to spur wind power growth in Iowa,” said Steven Falck, ELPC’s Senior Policy Advocate in Des Moines.
The wind energy production tax credit first passed in 1992, which has fostered growth of the Iowa wind energy supply chain and created more than 6,000 jobs. Through the last quarter of 2014, the U.S. installed wind energy capacity was at 65,879 megawatts, which also created more than 73,000 jobs.
“The Environmental Law & Policy Center urges the full Iowa Congressional delegation to support Sen. Grassley’s lead in extending the Federal Wind Energy Production Tax Credit,” said Falck.
JAMESTOWN – Mindi Schmitz, Jamestown, has been elected President of the North Dakota Alliance for Renewable Energy (NDARE).
Schmitz is a Government Relations Specialist working in the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Jamestown office on renewable energy development policies and implementing the Farm Bill’s clean energy development programs.
“NDARE advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency in North Dakota and the vast majority of North Dakotans support growing the renewable energy sector,” Schmitz said, noting that membership is open to all individuals, businesses, agencies and organizations that are involved with renewable energy and energy efficiency activities.
According to a public opinion survey commissioned by NDARE this winter, almost all (97%) North Dakotans feel that energy efficiency is somewhat or very important and more than one-half of the survey respondents believe that additional energy efficiency and renewable energy projects will create jobs in the state.
North Dakota currently ranks 5th in the US for the percentage of electricity provided by wind power and 10th in the US for installed ethanol production capacity.
“Interest in renewable energy, including wind, biofuels and solar energy, continues to grow in North Dakota. Consumers and businesses are also increasingly turning to energy efficiency as a way to save money on their energy bills,” said Schmitz.
Other officers elected include Vice President, Dr. Kenneth Hellevang, NDSU Ag and Biosystems Engineering, Fargo; Secretary, JoAnn Rodenbiker, Northern Plains Electric Cooperative, Cando; and Treasurer Kim Christianson, Bismarck. Newly elected board members include Russell Schell, RJ Energy Solutions, Fargo and Zac Smith, North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, Mandan. Kayla Pulvermacher, North Dakota Farmers Union, Mandan, also serves on the board of directors.
The North Dakota Alliance for Renewable Energy is a diverse membership-based advocacy organization that works with citizens, industry, government, interest groups, and educators to promote the development and use of renewable energy – including biofuels, biomass, and wind energy, as well as the widespread adoption of cost-effective energy efficiency and conservation practices.
While wind power is the dominant source of renewable energy in North Dakota, the North Dakota Alliance for Renewable Energy maintains there is a future for solar energy in the state as well.
Consumer interest in solar power is growing, according to Dennis Hill, the general manager of North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, which held a workshop Tuesday to keep cooperatives informed on solar technology advancements.
Three cooperatives have solar projects in North Dakota.
Cass County Electric has recently announced a solar project partnership with Fargo in which members can by a $1,670 share in a solar farm. The power created is credited to their monthly bill. The community project will start at 100 kilowatts but could be as large as 300 kilowatts if demand allows. The larger the project gets the less it will cost customers.
Northern Plains Electric, headquartered in Carrington, is launching a pilot project to power its office building. Members will be able to track the panel’s output and weigh the benefits of solar energy.
For more than a decade, Verendrye Electric Cooperative in Velva has offered solar-powered water pumps for remote stock tanks. Because of the tanks’ far-flung locations, the solar panel is more economic than running power lines.
DES MOINES – More than 100 Iowa businesses in the wind power and solar energy supply chain are providing more than 4,000 jobs to people across the state who are manufacturing, financing, designing, engineering, building, installing and maintaining renewable energy projects here and across the nation, as detailed in the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC)’s study released today. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) joins in the report’s release to underscore why politicians attending this weekend’s Ag Summit should support renewable energy policies that benefit farmers and rural communities.
“The upcoming Ag Summit participants should recognize how Iowa is a national leader in wind power development, which provides additional income for farmers and creates jobs and economic development in Iowa’s rural communities,” said ELPC Executive Director Howard A. Learner. “Iowa has a well-trained workforce that is building the renewable energy equipment used around the world. People say Iowa feeds the world; now Iowa is helping power the world, too.”
“The report shows that clean energy means Iowa jobs. The politicians at the Iowa Ag Summit should join Sen. Grassley and Gov. Branstad in supporting the federal Production Tax Credit for wind electricity to benefit farmers,” said Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Vice President for Campaigns, League of Conservation Voters. “The visiting suitors must reject conservative organizations’ efforts to kill the wind industry in Iowa and across the nation.”
ELPC’s report identified 75 wind power supply chain companies and 47 solar energy supply chain. The businesses were identified through ELPC’s analysis of data from several industry groups and then contacted individually to confirm their supply chain role.
For businesses involved in the installation and construction of wind power and solar energy projects, increased renewable energy development results in new business and increased economic activity in the communities where they operate.
“Heartland Energy Solutions and other Iowa businesses in the renewable energy industry are working hard to innovate and develop new technologies to bring down our energy costs,” said Charlie Sharp, President and CEO of the Mount Ayr-based wind turbine manufacturer. “Supportive policies not only help my business but also bring clean, affordable energy to the state. Iowa should continue leading the way.”
Policies that support renewable energy development also help Iowa farmers, who can gain revenues from wind turbines on their property and can reduce their utility bills by installing solar panels.
“I really believe that the more policies that can be developed to promote more growth in wind power and solar power is helping our landowners, helping our communities and making Iowa a national leader in something that’s really exciting ,” said Mark Kuhn, a Floyd County Supervisor and area farmer who has wind turbines on his property. “This is about developing our own natural resources – the wind and the sun.”
The ELPC report’s findings also offer insights into the types of businesses driving Iowa’s growing renewable energy sector. For example, the average size of a renewable energy supply chain business in Iowa is 37.7 employees.
Because Iowa is a relatively “small state,” the average Iowa supply chain business is quite large. The major wind equipment component manufacturers in Iowa employ large numbers of people,” said John Paul Jewell, Research Coordinator at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter Published: Friday, February 27, 2015
Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.
Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.
His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.
“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”
ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.
Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.
“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”
Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.
Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.
He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.
In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.
The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.
The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.
“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”
Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.
The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.
At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.
Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.
ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.
Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.
Looking for opportunity
ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.
Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”
To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.
Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.
“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.
Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.
“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”
That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.
Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.
“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.
He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.
“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”
Battling energy tycoon
Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.
ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.
And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.
There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.
An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.
Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.
McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.
Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.
ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.
They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.
Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”
There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.
Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.
“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”
ELPC’s Founding Vision is Becoming Today’s Sustainability Reality
Support ELPC’s Next 25 Years of Successful Advocacy