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Solar farm restrictions ignite heated debate

TheStar.com: Tyler Hamilton - June 19, 2009

Developers of large solar farms in Ontario are bracing for new rules that would forbid construction on prime farmland, a move they say would scare off investment and many of the "green collar" jobs being sought by the McGuinty government.

The solar industry argues that such farmland tends to be flat, free of obstruction, inexpensive and close to distribution lines, all factors that improve the economics of their projects. Farmers should have the right, they say, to lease or sell their land for solar development just as they do for growing corn for ethanol.

But some rural groups, backed by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, say it would be a mistake to have prime farmland used for generating electricity instead of growing crops.

"Put it on the roof of Wal-Mart, the new grocery store, or on industrial land where it's supposed to be," said David Bowen, who has lived 25 years just outside of Port Dover.

The issue has pitted environmentalists committed to land conservation against environmentalists more concerned with the benefits of green power and job creation. The debate has also divided the farming community.

"As a farmer I get pissed off when somebody wants to tell me what I can do or not do with my land," said Ray Roth, a farmer from New Hamburg trying to develop solar farms.

Members of the Canadian Solar Industries Association say they're concerned with the direction the government is heading.

Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman, speaking before the Standing Committee on Estimates on June 2, said rules expected to flow from the new Green Energy and Green Economy Act would put clear restrictions on where large solar projects could be developed.

Smitherman said it was "for certain" that class 1, 2 and 3 soils – 1 being the highest quality, but all three considered prime agricultural land – would not qualify for development. In Ontario, 12 per cent of all lands, or 89 million hectares, fall under the three soil classes.

"He's of the mind there's enough land for ground-mounted solar that it doesn't need to compete with prime agricultural land," said ministry spokesperson Amy Tang.

In previous statements, Smitherman has shown a bias toward promoting residential and commercial rooftop solar systems rather than large ground-mounted solar.

Elizabeth McDonald, president of the solar association, said putting up barriers to multi-megawatt solar developments on farmland would be a grave mistake. She said the impact on land would be minimal, estimated at 0.11 per cent of prime farmland over 20 years.

But without larger projects, McDonald added, Ontario is unlikely to get the kind of volume it requires to convince manufacturers of solar panels and related technologies to invest in the province – especially as border states, such as Michigan and Ohio, ramp up their own solar incentive programs.

The government would also be contradicting itself if it created the new restrictions, said Roth. It already encourages and provides indirect subsidies to farmers who grow corn and other crops for ethanol production.

He argued that generating solar power would be a much more efficient use of that land, because the electricity would go directly on the grid, not harvested, turned into pellets and trucked to a plant, all of which consumes fossil fuels.

Solar farms aren't vulnerable to drought, thrive during heat waves, and guard against topsoil erosion. Roth said the land can also rebuild nutrients over the years and be reclaimed at a later date, if desired.

"You can get 10 times the energy return compared to growing corn," he said.

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