Essays

3 April 2017

Re: Forests Replaced by Solar Farms


A Misguided Notion


A few years back, I received a phone call from a land agent in Minnesota. He was representing a solar company based in California. The agent said that the California company wanted to turn my family forest into a solar farm. The land is quite flat and an electrical substation is nearby. Those are 2 factors that solar farm scouts have in mind. As a side note, the interested solar farm company received a grant of over $700 million dollars to build a solar concentration plant in California. The grant is from the US Department of Energy in their effort to promote solar energy in the country. For your information, solar concentration energy is when the rays of the sun are concentrated like a magnifying glass to create heat which melts metal. The molten metal is used as source heat to generate electricity. The solar farm proposed for my family land involves rows and rows of solar panels composed of photovoltaic cells which convert light to electricity.


To create this solar farm, the trees must be removed. My family land at this location is some of the most fertile forestland in the whole country. These particular trees increase their volume by 16% per year, and that, my friends, is quite fast. The solar agent offered a price for the land of 50% above the appraised value. If I were to negotiate, I am sure he would have paid double the appraised value. He said, “You can keep and sell your trees; we don’t want them.” Folks, I was offended to hear such a disrespectful comment about a fine forest. In response, I asked, “Shouldn’t you see if you can pay back the government the over 700 million dollars you owe the taxpayer before you go speculating around the country?” Apparently, it doesn’t work like that. I was so upset that I called the Department of Energy in Washington and spoke with the chief of staff for Secretary Chu, who was the Secretary of Energy at that time. I expressed my dismay at the destruction of fine forests for the construction of solar farms. Why destroy the environment in an effort to save it?


There are plenty of places besides forestland for solar farms. Industrial brownfields, abandoned shopping centers, transportation right-of-ways, and other types of already compromised land make great locations for solar development, and it will contribute economically to blighted areas. Alas, however, forestland is sought because it is cheap and obstruction-free. Apparently, government agencies offering solar incentives don’t care or are not aware of this destruction. The utility company tells solar investors that, if they produce electricity, they will buy it. Utilities are incentivized by the government to have a certain percentage of electricity produced from renewable energy, and they don’t care how it’s done as long as it meets the renewable label. In complaining to the head of my state forestry association, he said, “That’s free enterprise, so we aren’t going to do anything.” “What an impressive statement”, I thought.


As an environmental kind of guy, my outlook has darkened about renewable energy programs coming out of Washington. Much money has been lost and even environmental destruction has resulted from these efforts which reflect half-baked thinking. People on the receiving end of these programs won’t say a discouraging word because of what appears to be free money, but somebody will suffer. Renewable efforts are good. I pursue them for myself and all of which I am associated, but the cause is hurt with contrived programs. An example of a contrived program is the expensive facility built in Mississippi that was to produce from wood synthetic fuels similar to gasoline. It caused great hope and excitement when it was announced. At that time, I asked a prominent chemistry professor at the University of Southern Mississippi about what he thought. He shook his head in a negative direction and said, “It won’t work.” Surely enough, the enterprise of which so many pinned their hopes failed. A lot of money was lost by the state and investors in the failure. I asked that same professor about why he knew the operation wouldn’t work, and he said, “The thermodynamics didn’t add up.” In layman’s language, the amount of energy required to produce the synfuel energy was too much to be competitive on the market. If the providers of money for the failed facility had called a few college professors around the country, perhaps the money would not be lost; but, when money is easily available, people don’t want to hear bad vibes, especially politicians and contractors.


Since that initial proposition to convert my forest to a solar farm, 4 more proposals were received. I just turn away.
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