Image by Roy Buri from Pixabay

Solar farms have been proposed all over the state. There will even be one in the City.

Driven by major industries looking to cut carbon from their electrical sources, large solar farms have been proposed all across the state over the past six years and the proposals easily number more than 130 since 2016, a recent industry count shows. Targeted for rural areas with large tracts of land largely near major transmission lines, solar farm proposals also have garnered pushback from neighbors, farmers, ranchers, legislators and even local officials who would stand to gain new revenue, spurring local moratoria and new regulations. Competition over pasture and agricultural land, concerns that solar operations won’t offer the best economic benefit for prime industrial sites, worries about cleanup after the farms are obsolete, and the fear of big, long-term changes to Louisiana’s open spaces have fueled this opposition. “I’ll tell you what my whole thing is, 50 years from now, I don’t want my grandkids riding around Washington Parish having to look at a bunch of dadgum solar panels because this (proposed farm) kicked off, another kicked off, and we don’t have any country left,” said Otis Carter, 51, a Varnado resident who attended a recent community meeting with his wife, Sheila, over a solar farm proposed north of Bogalusa. The latest iteration of this opposition, however, has fallen on familiar ground in Louisiana’s battles over industrial development: objection to lucrative breaks on property local taxes for schools, law enforcement, roads and other government spending.

Some of the approved proposals have gotten the tax breaks from the board that never fails to give one.

Since 2016, a first wave of eight projects largely sailed through the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, winning contracts exempting an estimated $457 million in new buildings and equipment, a state database shows. The exemptions are estimated to save nearly $5.4 million in the first year of up to 10 years in breaks on local taxes, but create 18 permanent jobs after the estimated 2,400 temporary construction jobs end. About 15 projects remain in the state pipeline, after a key state panel that oversees the tax break program recommended exemptions this fall for three more solar farms, kicking the requests down to local councils, sheriffs and school boards.  Two are in Washington Parish and are facing unusual headwinds, including the Bogalusa West project that the Carters were worried about late last week. In a rare rebuke, the Parish Council unanimously rejected exemptions last month for the other Washington project, a $7.7 million tax break over 10 years for a nearly 500-acre solar farm proposed outside Franklinton known as Sunlight Road that would supply power to Entergy Louisiana. On Monday, the same council will consider an even more lucrative tax break for Bogalusa West north of the city of the same name.

The proposals do cover a lot of land and is the energy generated enough to justify the land taken?

A project of the Shell Oil renewables subsidiary Savion, that solar farm would be located mostly west of La. 21 and cover an estimated 2,800 acres, or an area equivalent to almost half the size of the city of Bogalusa. The 200-megawatt solar operation would garner $25 million in combined property tax savings up to 10 years if it receives the exemption, company estimates show, but, like Sunlight Road, create one permanent job after hundreds in construction jobs end.  Council Chairman Carley King said he plans to be consistent with his decision on Sunlight Road and vote no on Monday, but the rest of the council isn’t certain. During a recent presentation on Bogalusa West, Councilman Joe Culpepper said he’s leaning against the exemption while Councilman Clark Harry declined to say because he is still evaluating the decision. Votes by the parish School Board are expected Thursday.  Sheriff “Randy Country” Seal, who has sole authority to weigh in on his office’s share of the exemption, did not return a message left with his office last week.

I can see the opposition but if you give them to oil and gas why not? Oil and gas take more parish funds with schools and such where solar will not.

Tripp Roy, director of development with D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, which is behind Sunlight Road and several other solar farms in the state, said his industry has seen opposition “from a number of fronts at multiple levels” in the past 12 months. “And I’d be lying if I said all of that is not going to have, you know, a chilling effect, or a quelling effect, on future investment, and I think a lot of people are watching very closely,” Roy said.  St. James Parish government enacted a moratorium earlier this year to study the costs and benefits of the proposed solar farms along the Mississippi River. The halt has affected other D.E. Shaw projects that would supply power to Entergy Louisiana, but Roy said his company and others remain hopeful they can work out compromises to keep the farms moving forward.

Proponents say tax money still comes in.

Backers of the solar farms say opponents, in their criticism of the tax breaks, are ignoring the bird in the hand for the two in the bush. The $70 million Sunlight Road would have generated $13 million in property taxes over 30 years even had all the exemptions been approved.  Bogalusa West officials say their $254 million project would generate $53 million in local sales and property taxes over 30 years after exemptions, including a one-time bump of $6.5 million in sales tax collections once construction starts. Parish permit fees would total $2.5 million. Also, changes a few years ago to the state’s property tax exemption program ensure local governments get taxes on 20% of the building and equipment value starting in the exemption’s first year. In rural areas with little industry, some observers add, the farms also provide an important benefit, altering the property tax status of land from low value agriculture or timber property or to higher value commercial or industrial land. The tax exemption applies only to the buildings and equipment; the land itself doesn’t benefit from the state exemption program.

Recently tax breaks have been questioned for many industries.

In a reprise of battles over other industry exemptions, opponents contend the breaks are an unnecessary giveaway to operations that create few permanent jobs and can make it on their own. Franklinton-area resident Wilson LaGraize, who would live next to Sunlight Road, has led a group of residents opposed to the exemptions as a bad deal for a rural parish with chronic financial problems and in need of jobs.  “It’s a one-way street. It’s corporate welfare,” he said. A now retired CPA and forensic accountant, LaGraize is one of the founders of the parish’s auditing firm. He and other residents helped develop the parish’s new solar farm ordinance during a lengthy moratorium. He pointed to recent analysis by the New York financial advisory firm Lazard, which found solar’s cost per megawatt/hour is often well below most traditional sources, including coal, nuclear and natural gas. He argued federal incentives and local tax breaks only improve that advantage further. “The solar thing is extremely lucrative, and these guys are making a lot of money off of it, and they’re making it off the front end,” LaGraize added.

Proponents say the first few years the profit margin is low.

Proponents counter the tax exemptions are necessary to keep the proposals competitive within their companies for financial backing and even viable. Margins are thin in the early years of these projects, they add. Roy has said the loss of the parish government exemption for Sunlight Road doesn’t kill the project but lowers its attractiveness internally for financing and could at least mean delays. For Bogalusa West, which is earlier in its development than Sunlight Road — it doesn’t have a contract to sell power — the loss of the tax exemptions would more than likely end a project backers say is already fighting to be cost competitive. Chris Barry, a project manager with Savion who is helping shepherd Bogalusa West, said the project isn’t on prime agricultural land, which had stirred opposition to earlier projects, like D.E. Shaw’s existing Iris Solar farm outside Franklinton. It would be across the highway from the proposed Sunlight Road.  Essentially steered by the parish’s new solar ordinance, Bogalusa West is proposed for timberland with extensive wetlands that must be avoided but also would benefit from tree buffers to screen the solar panels from roads. Only some 1,500 acres of the site, which will have to be cleared, can be used for panels. Costs to connect to the grid are also higher than average. “We’re in deal-killer territory,” Barry said. 

In general I oppose corporate welfare but I do realize that some times it is necessary, but not at the levels the oil and gas companies get!

Solar and tax exempt in a state that loves to give tax breaks to industry
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