Mercer residents fight solar farm project to save future jobs; Critics say valuable land could bring thousands of jobs to the region
Published 1:45 pm Monday, May 15, 2023
BY FIONA MORGAN
Mercer County residents have voiced opposition to a solar farm project by LG&E KU Energy on a large farm north of Harrodsburg.
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The land is known as the Wilkinson farm. It’s approximately 1,895 acres just north of Harrodsburg on the west side of Highway 127.
The Mercer County government had identified this land as a valuable site for new industry, which officials say could bring thousands of jobs to the region and have a ripple effect in surrounding counties. However, the LG&E KU plan for a solar farm on the site would bring almost no jobs, according to officials.
More than 400 residents attended a public meeting in April on the issue. During that meeting, it was revealed that industrial development on the site could eventually bring as many as 7,000 jobs.
Another meeting was held Monday by the newly formed Mercer Coalition for Responsible Development. The MCRD is a nonprofit that advocates for responsible development practices.
Brian Steele with MCRD said they are not against solar energy. He said they recognize the need for renewable energy like solar, but that companies should do it responsibly, and keep the interests and economic health of local communities in mind.
“If renewable energy development comes at the cost of jobs and development of this community, then we honestly do have a problem,” Steele said. “Our primary concern is what say Mercer County citizens have in that process.”
Boyle County Magistrate Tom Ellis attended both Mercer County solar meetings. He also attended educational solar forums held last year at CentreWorks.
Commenting on the issue in Mercer, Ellis stated, “For Boyle or Mercer County to lose land best suited for corporate growth, with a net loss of potential employment, as is the case with LG&E’s Mercer County filing with the Public Service Commission in Frankfort, would be counterproductive to our constituents’ short and long term needs.”
He continued, “Boyle County Fiscal Court is not against solar facility development; rather we will always look at its approval with a critical eye toward ‘best use’ and appropriate location.”
John Trisler, chairman of the Mercer County Industrial Development Authority, was a speaker during Monday’s meeting, and explained the backstory of what led to this fight. He said that as a small county, Mercer does not have as many good jobs, and that the county lost over 500 industrial jobs between 2016 and 2021.
“We’re headed in the wrong direction,” Trisler said. “None of my kids work in Mercer County. Only one of my grandkids works in Mercer County.”
One reason for a lack of new industry is a lack of available land in the county. “We can’t show property for Mercer County for jobs if you have no land,” Trisler said.
A year and a half ago, they formed a citizen group to address this issue, which then selected the Wilkinson farm as an area for possible development. Since then, Mercer County has hosted three visits to the site from companies looking for new locations. Trisler said the Development Authority has recently received six requests for information.
The land is valuable for industry due to its size, easy excavation potential, access to utilities, and access to transportation, with a railroad on one side, and HWY 127 on the other. Trisler said other possible locations in the county have limitations in all of those areas.
Last fall, the Industrial Authority held a meeting discussing economic development on the Wilkinson farm. Steele said that several local utility companies were at the meeting, including LG&E KU.
However, in December 2022, LG&E KU filed with the Public Service Commission to build a solar facility on the Wilkinson farm. Steele said that during their discussions on economic development, LG&E KU never mentioned wanting to build a solar facility on that land.
In January, Mercer County filed an intervention with the PSC, arguing that the Wilkinson farm would be better suited for industrial development than a solar facility.
Ceres Farms of South Bend, Indiana, owned the Wilkinson property, which they bought in 2017. Ceres Farms is an investment fund that buys mainly agricultural land to either lease back to farmers, or to resell.
Despite the intervention, Ceres Farms sold two parcels of the Wilkinson farm in April, a larger tract of land to KU for $9.8 million; and the other tract to the Mercer County Solar Project LLC for $5.2 million.
However, MCRD officials said the solar project is not a done deal. The PSC will have a public hearing in August.
Every letter that citizens send about the solar project will be put in the PSC file to be considered with the hearing. MCRD is trying to get the word out about this issue, and is encouraging people to reach out to state officials, write letters and emails, or contribute to the cause.
This isn’t the only solar project that’s coming or may come to the area, as many local farmers have been approached by solar companies. Another possible project was discussed during Monday’s forum – the Herrington Solar Project at Springlake Farms near Burgin.
Springlake Farms is about 842 acres north of Buster Pike and extends north of Highway 152, just over the border with Boyle County. Mercer County Magistrate Susan Barrington spoke against the project, saying that the farmland near Burgin is too valuable to the community to be taken by solar.
“If these 842 aces are turned into an industrial solar farm, when you top the hill where Moore Lane intersects Burgin Road, going east toward Burgin, your eyes will be looking at hundreds of thousands of glass solar panels on both sides of the road as far as you can see,” Barrington said.
The land is zoned agricultural, and is part of the PACE program, which ensures agricultural land will stay zoned for agricultural use. Barrington pointed out that in Mercer County, agricultural zoning does not allow solar usage.
Solar companies generally want prime farmland for their solar panels, since the best farmland gets good sun. But any land taken up by solar panels could have a negative impact on future food supply.
“I will always be adamantly and vehemently opposed to industrial solar farms taking our very best prime agricultural farmland and turning it into a wasteland of solar panels,” Barrington said.
Trisler said the issue is really about site control, and giving power back to the local government. MCRD is looking into legislation to give local governments more say in what happens to their land.
Mercer’s State Representative Kim King spoke at Monday’s meeting, saying she has spoken to officials at the state level about these solar issues. She said people are sympathetic to the issue, but they have a long way to go to take meaningful action.
The MCRD is holding another public meeting on Monday, June 12, at 6 p.m. People can email any questions about the issues to Info@GrowMercer.com.