Photo: Sarah Lynn Photography
David Herring had hoped his daughter might one day take over the family farm his grandparents purchased in 1945. An adjacent solar plant has them rethinking those plans.
Evenings at David Herring’s house and farm in Walton County in Northwest Florida are marked by the whining of motors coming on. Herring’s farm abuts an 866-acre solar power plant completed this year by FPL. At the close of the day, the motors turn on to reset the panels, which track the sun to maximize power production, so they can face the next day’s morning sun. “If you’re outside, that’s what you hear,” he says.
Herring raises cattle and grows peanuts, soybeans and corn on his 360 acres in the north part of the county, a farm his grandparents started and one that he hoped his daughter would take over one day. In 2020, Gulf Power went to Walton County’s Board of Commissioners for approval to convert an adjacent farm into a utility-scale solar power plant. Herring, whose house sits a few hundred feet from the plant site, and other neighbors pushed back.
Renewables are encountering more opposition as they consume more farmland. In Florida, solar has encountered pushback in Polk County. And in 2020, residents of Saint Peter Saint Paul, a historically Black neighborhood in the city of Archer in Alachua County, convinced commissioners to reject plans for a 74.9-megawatt solar plant on 650 acres. They argued that converting the site would impact health, the environment and property values. The Florida chapter of the Sierra Club joined in the opposition. Alachua County commissioners voted against the solar development in late 2020.
Terrell Arline, the Tallahassee attorney who represented the residents of Saint Peter Saint Paul, says the issue isn’t solar but its location. “They’re not appropriate everywhere,” he says.
In Florida, however, opponents won’t have much success in stopping solar. State lawmakers and the governor in 2021 preempted local determination of whether solar power facilities are allowed in agricultural areas. “They really just went and got the law changed,” Arline says of utilities. The Archer community was exempted in the 2021 legislation via an amendment.
The plant Gulf Power (now absorbed by FPL) wanted by Herring’s farm went forward after the bill passed, though in a deal with the county, some modifications to the site were made.
“We had to fight, fight, fight to get what we did get,” Herring says. He blames the new facility for his yard now flooding when it rains an inch. His view is of solar panels, and Herring says the trees the utility planted to screen the site won’t be tall enough for decades to do much good.
Herring follows neighbor opposition to solar across the country and says he believes the drivers in its development are government subsidies and power companies looking for ways to offset their carbon-generating power plants. He is concerned that farmland needed for food production is being lost to solar production. “We’re not going to have any agriculture land. All the thousands of acres that’s going into the panels — go over there and take a bite of it and see how well you digest it,” he says.