Editorial: More creativity needed to win rural support for large solar farms

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For the past three years, Indiana lawmakers have tried to find a way to persuade rural counties to be more accepting of large-scale wind and solar farms.

Many of the counties have responded by adopting zoning laws so restrictive that they effectively block such renewable-energy projects.

The main objection cited by local resisters is the need to protect prime farmland from being gobbled up by massive energy projects that often encompass thousands of acres.

But a critical underlying factor is that economic development visionaries are asking rural residents to change the entire landscape of their scenic surroundings by allowing the installation of unattractive solar panels and giant wind turbines for as far as the eye can see.

And other than the few local jobs the renewable-power projects would create, the developments don’t offer a lot of immediate local benefits in return, critics say.

Indiana has secured one huge renewable-energy win. The massive 13,000-acre solar farm under development in Starke and Pulaski counties is believed to be the largest in the nation.

Other smaller projects have been completed across the state, but many rural counties remain resistant despite state officials’ insistence that development of significant renewable-energy capacity is critical to entice major employers to expand and locate in Indiana.

Many large companies have pledged to become carbon-neutral in the next 20 to 30 years to show their commitment to battling the climate crisis.

The Legislature’s efforts to meet the moment have been inadequate. Currently, lawmakers are debating a bill that would provide cash incentives to counties willing to adopt state zoning standards for wind and solar farms.

As IBJ’s Peter Blanchard reported, a 1,000-acre solar farm would generate about $200,000 per year for a county.

But it seems clear that a periodic cash infusion isn’t going to be enough to persuade rural officials to welcome large renewable-energy projects with open arms. State officials need to do more to make it worth their while.

If rural farming communities have to give up huge expanses of precious land for the wind and solar farms needed to attract large employers, they should also be the site of some of those economic development projects and their high-paying jobs.

That’s why we recommend the bundling of renewable-energy projects with large-scale employment opportunities. That way, rural communities that want job growth can get it, but they also have to agree to provide the renewable energy needed to power those projects and more.

It’s a perfect match for efforts by Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana Commerce Secretary Brad Chambers to secure shovel-ready land for economic development while also transitioning the state to renewable energy.

A great place to give it a try is the 9,000-acre LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District the state is assembling in Boone County, where some small renewable energy projects are already envsioned.•

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