Residents and representatives of Lawrence County are expressing concern over a proposed large-scale solar farm planned to cover thousands of acres of existing farmland.
In 2019, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) purchased an option to buy over 3,000 acres of farmland for an industrial solar facility in Wheeler, an option they exercised in 2021 when it completed the purchase.
The TVA is a federally owned utility company that provides electricity for a large portion of North Alabama, as well as parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia.
The proposed solar farms have drawn the ire of local residents and lawmakers, who believe the solar farm will negatively affect the economy, environment and utility prices.
David Coffey is a resident of Lawrence County whose family has lived in the area for seven generations. Coffey has been at the forefront of the challenges to the planned solar farm for years.
According to Coffey, the Lawrence County Commission does not have the authority to develop a land use ordinance to regulate farmland use. Instead, the county commission and residents have endeavored to open a dialogue with the TVA to address local concerns. Coffey also said he had a four-hour meeting with Urban Grid at his house with over 35 locals.
Coffey says public outreach and engagement have been less-than-stellar despite the few meetings.
According to Coffey, Urban Grid Company has contracted options with other landowners to lease 4,000 additional acres adjacent to the TVA site, with plans to sell the power to TVA. However, he admits there is no official number on the official acreage of any planned additional solar farms.
"Some at the meeting were opposed to solar because they're worried about wildlife," Coffey said. "Some are against it because they're worried about chemical runoff into the Tennessee River; they read about solar panels can leech chemicals into the earth, and others were farmers."
He continued, "It's not just the land they're leasing that's problematic as far as farming in Lawrence County goes. Because when you shut down a certain number of acres of cotton, then you can't support the gin. We've got about two gins within about three miles of where I'm sitting, and one or both of them would likely go away with this 7,000 acre being diverted away from farming. That is a significant amount of cropland."
Coffey said the farmers and county commission are hoping to bring TVA and Urban Grid to the table in hopes that they both see that the majority of the county is against the proposed solar panels.
"We're hoping that is they see that 90% of the county is against this, basically all but the 12 farmers who are getting paid a lot of money to lease their lands, they're all against this," Coffey said. "We're hoping they say, 'Other places want us, we're just going to quit messing with Lawrence County."
"The farmers are adamantly, adamantly, adamantly, very vocal, 100% against this."
State Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity), who represents the district, said he believes solar power has applications but should not subvert farming and agriculture in the county.
Although TVA considers this land purchase to be an action that is reversible in the future, many local farmers think any utilization of the land would have detrimental effects on the economy and environment.
According to Yarbrough, the federal Farmland Protection Policy Act (FPPA), which is intended to minimize the impact federal programs have on the unnecessary and irreversible conversion of farmland to nonagricultural uses, is intended to prevent the exact thing planned by the TVA.
"The FPPA was specifically designed to prevent government from taking over prime farmland converting it to non-farming uses," Yarbrough told 1819 News.
Yarbrough also said the planned build is a political move by the federal government attempting to push alternative energy sources that are "insufficient to make a part of our critical infrastructure."
"When Donald Trump had his appointees on the TVA board, these projects were dead in the water," Yarbrough continued. "We were told the math didn't make sense; they're not going to work." "…Then, all of a sudden, magically, Joe Biden's appointees get on the board, and all of a sudden, the project makes sense."
He continued, "I think TVA is doing this, in part, because they're getting all this federal grant money."
Coffey backed up Yarbrough's claim, saying representatives admitted at the home meeting that federal grant money was the only thing that made these projects feasible.
"In other words, it's not free-market driven, it's not capitalism driven, it's politically driven with taxpayer dollars," Yarbrough said. "As a nation, our energy independence and our food independence are matters of national security. And those are issues that we have to, as a community, and as a state and a nation, we have to work together to solve those issues and meet those needs where we end up in a situation like Germany or California where we have serious energy of food crises."
"This is taking away prime farmland which needs to be used for food. How many of us through COVID, where we saw because of the supply chain issues, all the pictures on social media of no meat, no food, all these stores empty.?"
According to Yarbrough, other state lawmakers have gotten involved and are weighing legislative options to address the planned solar farms.
The TVA did conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the effects of the solar farms on the land. However, for Coffey and others, the EIS didn't address specific key issues.
According to an assessment compiled by Coffey and reviewed by several Alabama-based professors of climatology, Agricultural Economics and more, the EIS failed to address the environmental impact of disposing of waste produced by solar farms, which the assessment claims increases the cost of electricity production by 400%. The assessment also claims the EIS does not address the effect of the proposed Urban Grid solar farms."
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