ATLANTA — Billy Taylor was ready to replace pine trees with solar panels on a swath of his south Georgia farmland.
His solar plan, he said, seemed in line with a state land conservation program that has kept his property taxes in check for decades, especially since he knew the program didn’t penalize participants who welcomed cell towers to their farmland.
So he was stunned to learn that it would cost him a more than $40,000 penalty fee to use some of his 74-acre Pierce County property to host solar panels, which are not permitted on protected property.
“That kind of shot it down,” Taylor said.
There’s a proposal in the works to reduce that penalty in hopes of bringing more solar projects online. About 80 percent of prime solar land is locked up in the state’s land conservation program, according to the Georgia Large-Scale Solar Association.
It would cost $11 million to remove these properties from the program, according to the association.
“Those penalties are prohibitive. We can’t get over that,” said Ryan Sanders, who chairs the association.
Sanders’ company, Atlanta-based Beltline Energy, tried to negotiate a deal with Taylor to produce energy for Georgia Power, which is looking to grow its solar capacity. The penalty was what sunk it, they said. Taylor has since replanted his land with pine trees.
Rep. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, originally sought to waive the entire penalty for agricultural landowners, but that notion raised concerns in the Senate that charging no fee would be unfair to others in the program.
Hatchett has since settled on limiting the penalty to just the land used for a solar project.
“It makes it better than not being able to do it all,” Hatchett said last week.
Counties would miss out on the penalty fees they receive now, but they would begin to collect more property tax revenues.
The Georgia Large-Scale Solar Association estimates that this will lead to $157 million more being collected statewide during a two-decade span. As is, about $4.7 million would be collected.
But solar also creates new challenges. The interest in commercial solar projects was intense enough for Colquitt County to place a two-month moratorium on new applications. Grady County and others have done the same.
“We’re trying to figure out how to deal with it,” County Administrator Chas Cannon said.
Most of the focus will likely be on south Georgia, where the land is flatter and the sunshine more intense. The rural landscape also means less likelihood of someone wanting to place a solar farm next to a neighborhood.
Georgia is already one of the fastest growing states for solar, with 1,432 megawatts of solar installed statewide as of 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Hatchett’s proposal is expected to make way for more solar, but it’s no done deal. Some senators remain concerned about diluting a land conservation program that shields farmers from the effects of ballooning property values.
Advocates, though, say the change is a way to keep the program relevant. Sanders called the proposal a “pragmatic tweak.”
Jeffrey Harvey, the legislative director for the Georgia Farm Bureau, said the proposal to charge a penalty on only the affected land is a fair compromise.
“That helps maintain the integrity of the program, because we don’t want people gaming the system,” Harvey said.
The bill would also add farm labor housing to the list of exemptions in the program, as long as that lodging is provided to workers for free. Existing exemptions include corn mazes, farm weddings and nonprofit rodeos.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.