Solar energy movement has spread to region

Western Pennsylvania has a long and colorful history of land leasing as oil and gas firms scoured the region for drilling and production opportunities during a series of exploration booms over the years.

There’s a new interest from a different power source now eyeing farm lands and other open fields in the region.

It is solar power, and landmen, the historic term given to individuals who sign up leases and work out options for oil and gas extraction, are working areas across Pennsylvania to identify potential projects.

Those projects involve solar panels installed on large acreage and designed to provide power to utilities.

While similar to solar panels installed on residential and commercial rooftops, the new push is for much larger panels, often numbering in the hundreds, on open lands. They have been designated by the industry as solar farms.

The concept of solar farms involves a lot of land, money, planning, trust and more. Concerns about those have prompted an energy educator to set up a local workshop next week that will focus on the new solar energy push.

Interest spreading here

“I didn’t expect we would have a solar energy movement,” said Dan Brockett, extension educator on the energy team for Penn State Extension and an experienced go-to individual in earlier oil and gas leasing projects. “My first reaction was this can’t be right because we don’t have that much sunshine. I though it might be a scam.”

Numerous landowners in this region are receiving letters and other correspondence from sources noting they are interested in leasing land for solar development, said Brockett. Land agents are personally contacting some landowners.

The interest is cropping up across Pennsylvania, including Venango, Crawford and Clarion counties, he noted. In some cases, landowners are being offered leasing options.

“There is real money being offered out there for options,” said Brockett.

That prompted Brockett to further explore the solar energy interests and arrange a workshop to provide information to area landowners. It is set from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Venango County Fairgrounds.

The workshop, held in conjunction with the Clarion-Venango-Forest Farm Bureau, is free and open to the public. Reservations are not required.

“Landowners may have important decisions to make that may affect their pocketbooks and land for decades,” said Brockett. “They should be armed with good information.”

Why the solar interest?

Brockett said he consulted with solar energy experts who told him his skepticism about insufficient sunny days in western Pennsylvania was unwarranted.

“They said it doesn’t matter that we have cloudy days because there is enough sunshine to generate energy,” he said. “What really makes the project feasible is improved technology and that the cost of solar panels have gone down tremendously over the years. The experts said it is a feasible energy source here.”

What the potential investors are looking for are open fields with access to sunlight and the absence of trees and large structures that cause shade, said Brockett. The tracts should be located near transmission lines and substations.

The expected life span of the large solar panels is about 20 to 25 years, a timeframe that suggests land leases could extend at least that long, he said.

“There are 12 different projects underway across Pennsylvania with most of them on a small scale or a community scale. The typical appears to be anywhere from 20 to 80 acres of solar development,” said Brockett. “At this stage, developers are out there trying to secure some land, arranging engineering studies, lining up finances. A lot of background work needs to be done.”

The short term effects need to be addressed quickly, said the energy educator.

“The most concerning to me in the short term is that I’ve heard from landowners that they are not worried because it is just an option,” said Brockett. “But it will be (the developer’s) … option, not the landowner’s option. You need to make sure you are okay with the lease because they can run for a very long time.”

The gist of the Feb. 12 workshop will be to discuss legal aspects of options and leases as well what could be the effects of having a large solar array on a property

“We want to make sure everyone has the full information as to what the option says, what the lease says, how you will be able to use your property, how the payments would be made and more,” said Brockett. “We need to understand the short term and the long term.”

Area is being checked

Cherrytree Township supervisors announced late last month a representative from Cypress Creek Renewables had informed them it was considering a solar farm in the township.

The project would involve 300 acres of property along Route 8. The tract includes multiple property owners.