Is this the best use of prime farmland?

Thousands of acres are being paved with panels

click to enlarge Is this the best use of prime farmland?
Photo by David Blanchette
A solar field near Murrayville in Morgan County.

What should be grown on central Illinois' prime farmland, seeds or solar panels?

That's the quandary facing central Illinois and other areas of the nation that grow the majority of the country's crops. A new solar energy installation, labeled the Double Black Diamond Solar project, is now being built and takes up more than 4,000 acres of land in Sangamon and Morgan Counties. That land, until now, has been used to grow corn and soybeans.

The Sangamon County area contains some of the world's richest soils, but it is also now the home of lucrative leases for solar panel installations that have some landowners trading their cropland for two types of green – energy and money.

Solar advocates say we need the alternative energy source and there's enough land to go around for everybody. But an increasing number of people are asking why solar developers are seeking prime farmland instead of siting their developments on land that isn't feeding the nation.

It's green energy versus green crops, and the debate seems likely to intensify as more alternative energy developments continue to move into the nation's heartland.

"No one was thinking you would take this rich farmland out of production."

Lucy Stafford uses solar energy on her small farm near Pleasant Plains. But the location of the Double Black Diamond Solar project on prime farmland caused her family to sell another small farm they owned because they didn't want to be surrounded by acres of solar panels.

"It was just 10 acres, but it's almost sickening because this was a family farmstead that had gone back into the 1850s," said Stafford of the land along Sims Road near Waverly. "I'm a quasi-environmentalist, but I believe you have to balance the earth, soil, water and air. And all they are focused on right now is the air."

Stafford and others who opposed the scale of the Double Black Diamond Solar project attended several Sangamon County Board and zoning meetings, but did not prevail in stopping the project.

click to enlarge Is this the best use of prime farmland?
Photo by David Blanchette
Lucy Stafford stands near a solar array on the roof of a farm building she owns near Pleasant Plains. Stafford's family sold a farm they had owned near Waverly since the 1850s when the 4,000-acre Double Black Diamond Solar project was sited nearby.

"None of the ordinances envisioned these 4,000-acre solar fields, and no one was thinking that you would take this rich farmland out of production," Stafford said. "One of the things we learned during COVID was that we have to be self-reliant, especially in our food sources. I know we over-produce, but at some point we might not, and you just can't get the land back."

Darrel Thoma of Dowson Farms, the landowner for the vast majority of the Double Black Diamond Solar project, took the prime farmland concern into account while negotiating the long-term lease on their land with Swift Current Energy.

"No one knows what the future will hold, but at this time we don't feel like the land being used for solar is hurting the food, feed and energy sectors of the market," Thoma said. "Farming has a tremendous amount of production, market, financial, institutional, governmental and personal risk. We decided to lease this portion of our land to solar to reduce some of these risks."

The Double Black Diamond Solar lease will stay with future generations of the Dowson family or pass to the next buyer if the land were ever sold. Thoma feels confident that the solar project won't have a long-term detrimental effect on their land.

"We have spent a considerable amount of time working with Swift Current on our lease and the decommissioning of the land, if that is ever to happen," Thoma said. "We appreciate Swift's willingness to listen to our concerns."

"Flash a lot of money in front of people."

John Hawkins is a farm owner near Buffalo and is also a trustee of the Sangamon Conservancy Trust, which has 6,000 acres of prime farmland under conservation easements. The trust will not allow solar or wind energy projects to be developed on easement lands because they feel that crop production is the best use for those properties.

"The problem with putting 500 acres of solar panels in is that, once they are done with it, you've got electric lines and metal," Hawkins said. "They can decommission it, but you don't know if they are going to decommission it back to the level that the ground was when it was installed. Once you are dead and gone and your family wants to restart the farm, they may not be able to."

Hawkins pointed to the defense plant installation that was developed during World War II in eastern Sangamon County as an example of a supposedly temporary installation that has never gone away.

"They put in concrete storage huts on prime farmland and many of those structures are still there," Hawkins said. "The cost to remove them is prohibitively high."

Hawkins said that central Illinois prime farmland prices are at record levels, but alternative energy developers are still going after these ultra-expensive properties.

"Government subsidies and the developers of these renewable energy projects flash a lot of money in front of people," Hawkins said. "It can be a lucrative investment for somebody who doesn't look at the long term. For some farmers they think they are hitting the lottery."

Walter Lynn is a Springfield certified public accountant who works with numerous agricultural clients across the country.

"Biological capital is one piece that does not show on any financial statement. Do landowners have good soil, water infiltration and water holding capacity?" Lynn said. "I don't think any solar company has any clue about that. There are going to be runoff issues, and I'm concerned about what's going to be available for food production down the road if we're not being involved now in some smart siting."

The Illinois Solar Energy Association's Peter Gray argues that solar does indeed take the health of prime farmland into account.

click to enlarge Is this the best use of prime farmland?
Photo by David Blanchette
Solar panels wait to be installed at the Prairie Creek solar development in northern Morgan County.

"Solar farms are a temporary use of land that requires no water, pesticides or fertilizers," Gray said. "Perennial ground cover improves soil and water quality around solar projects, so that when the land is returned to its prior condition at the end of the project's life, it can be healthier and more productive."

Gray said that solar will never take agriculture's place in America's economy, and enough solar can be installed to meet our energy goals without a noticeable impact on agriculture. He said the Double Black Diamond Solar farm occupies only about zero-point-seven percent of the farmland in Sangamon County. Gray points out that much of Illinois' farmland is already used for the production of energy in the form of corn ethanol.

"The most important thing to remember is that landowners have the right to decide the best way to use their land and run their business," Gray said. "Most people would agree that their government and their neighbors shouldn't decide how they use their property or run their business."

"Place solar in less productive areas."

The Illinois Farm Bureau agrees that farmland owners should decide what is best for their properties, and the Farm Bureau works to keep its members informed about what to look for if they are approached by alternative energy developers.

"We have members who are interested in participating in solar projects and we have members who are concerned about solar projects being placed on prime farmland," said Bill Bodine, director of business and regulatory affairs for the Illinois Farm Bureau. "Our policy, set by our members, supports solar energy as a portion of our energy portfolio, but it also supports efforts to locate solar projects on marginal or under-utilized lands."

When the Sangamon County Board debated the rezoning of thousands of acres for the Double Black Diamond Solar project, District 25 board member George Preckwinkle opposed the rezoning because he felt the development should be located on less-valuable land.

"We need to protect the prime real estate of farmland and try to place solar in less productive areas," Preckwinkle said. "I think we have a lot of sites that could be used, like the old Pillsbury Mill or the old Formosa plant."

Preckwinkle and his sister, Lucy Stafford, own 13 Ace Hardware stores, half of which have solar installations. But those stores aren't located on prime farmland.

"I understand the developers' point of view, they want to make money, everybody likes that," Preckwinkle said. "But I also think there's a reason why you have zoning, to have the proper use of land for the greater good."

Sangamon County Board District 3 member David Mendenhall was also against the Double Black Diamond Solar project location.

"This can have a potential negative impact, and not just on the farmers, but the seed dealers, the chemical dealers, the grain elevators and the trucking companies," Mendenhall said. "As we continue to remove prime farmland, it's going to be a bidding war for tenants paying cash rent."

Mendenhall said Illinois would do well to look at Iowa's Beginning Farmer Tax Credit Program, which encourages keeping farmland in production by allowing landowners to earn a tax credit for leasing their land to beginning farmers. He also feels that moving solar projects to less desirable land has benefits for everyone.

"I think Ameren and these other companies need to invest some of their money and move over to some land that's currently under the federal government's set-aside program that's not being farmed now," Mendenhall said. "That has a benefit for the government too, because they don't have to pay these farmers to take this land out of production."

click to enlarge Is this the best use of prime farmland?
Photo by David Blanchette
John Hawkins of the Sangamon Conservancy Trust. The trust will not allow alternative energy developments to be sited on prime farmland for which the trust holds a conservation easement.

Ameren Illinois has no role in the solar project site selection process, according to spokesperson Marcelyn Love, and alternative energy developers are responsible for the costs incurred to build the infrastructure that allows them to connect to Ameren's system. Those costs, however, could be lower for a developer if a solar project is located closer to existing power facilities like those typically found near farms.

"Generally speaking, closer proximity to existing electric infrastructure does favorably affect the costs to interconnect," Love said. "But other factors, including the capacity of the distribution facilities back to their link with the transmission system, can also affect interconnection costs."

Daniel Sheehan is the development manager for Swift Current Energy.

"It made sense to locate the Double Black Diamond Solar project on these parcels because there was enough contiguous acres for a project of this size, as well as available transmission capacity in the area due to new transmission lines that were sited on the same property within the last five years," Sheehan said.

"We are fortunate that the landowner who owns the vast majority of the property where the project is sited both lives locally and operates their land," Sheehan said. "While the solar farm operates, the land will continue to stay in the family and the topsoil will be preserved for future generations."

Morgan County has no rural zoning ordinance. Besides the Double Black Diamond Solar project near Waverly, the county has the Wolf Run solar project on its western side and the Prairie Creek solar project being constructed to the north.

"The larger projects come and do their due diligence, talk to the board and have a public hearing, but there's nothing in our county that would regulate them," said Morgan County Board Chairman Brad Zeller. "We developed a memorandum of understanding with Wolf Run about complying with the Agriculture Mitigation Act and being good with the neighbors and notifications. We'd like to make that document a model for a countywide ordinance."

"State law tells counties that we must have a wind ordinance," Zeller said. "But so far solar has just kind of been excluded from that state process and left up to the counties."

Swift Current Energy of Boston, the developer of the Double Black Diamond Solar project, was acquired in 2021 by Buckeye Partners and Nala Renewables.

According to Reglobal, Buckeye Partners is owned by IFM Global Infrastructure Fund, which owns and operates a global network of liquid petroleum pipelines, terminals and storage. Nala Renewables was formed in 2020 by commodity trading company Trafigura and the global investment management firm IFM Investors. Nala Renewables is focused on solar, wind and energy storage projects.

The $535 million Double Black Diamond Solar project's estimated 592-megawatt generation capacity will power the equivalent of approximately 97,000 homes. Construction is underway, with completion by late 2023.

About The Author

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

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