DOVER — It was another long meeting for Kent County Levy Court Tuesday, during which the commissioners ultimately opted against placing a moratorium on site plans for large-scale solar installations.
Instead, Levy Court’s Department of Planning Services will begin drafting an ordinance to go before the commissioners that, if approved, would change the current standards for acceptance of solar.
“What begins next is drafting an ordinance that tries to address the concerns we’re hearing,” Sarah Keifer, director of Planning Services, said Wednesday.
In an Oct. 12 meeting, the commissioners introduced an ordinance that, if passed, would have prevented any applications for solar complexes. During Tuesday’s meeting, Ms. Keifer said that move resulted in an influx of applications for solar.
She said the county received two site plan applications in the last week and more than a dozen inquiries in the same time period.
At the top of the Tuesday meeting, Commissioner Eric Buckson, who chairs the Planning Services Committee, said his goal was to open a dialogue with as many interested parties as possible regarding Kent County’s suitability for the construction of solar complexes.
He questioned the best way for the county to have more say over any potential construction.
“Is there a better method of doing it? Is a moratorium a reasonable option?” Commissioner Buckson asked. “We need to have that conversation, because, in my opinion, it was not a fair process what happened a couple weeks ago for anyone involved.”
This comes after Levy Court denied the site plan for the Cedar Creek Solar facility in late September that would have been built east of Smyrna on land currently zoned for agricultural conservation.
Had plans been approved, the complex would have covered 260.46 acres of nearly 530 acres across three parcels on the north sides of Lighthouse and Woodland Beach roads.
The 4-3 vote that denied the plans on Sept. 28 came after more than two hours of, at times, heartfelt testimony.
This time, the discussion of the pros and cons for solar lasted about two and a half hours.
During the Tuesday meeting, Ms. Keifer said the commissioners have a lot of options to look at in terms of standards for solar. Currently, large-scale solar installations are treated as a public utility, meaning there are conditional uses for them in any zoning district.
By comparison, she said, some jurisdictions limit solar arrays to land zoned for industrial use only and not for agriculture. In other areas, solar is permitted in agricultural zones, but with additional standards like increased setbacks and buffers.
New Castle County adopted new regulations in 2017, Ms. Keifer said, which allows solar in many zoning districts. They are limited in suburban reserve districts to 1,000 acres or less.
“We’ve put together at least some thoughts — is this a use we want to allow throughout the county or do we want to limit it to industrial?” Ms. Keifer said. “Do we want to have a conversation about inside the growth zone versus outside the growth zones? Those are the sorts of alternatives in front of you so I guess the question is, are we comfortable allowing them in all the zoning districts?”
Commissioner Buckson invited several parties to speak during the meeting with the goal of offering more insight on solar.
Richard Wilkins, president of the Delaware Farm Bureau and the first to speak, said farmers are generally not opposed to solar power.
However, he spoke in favor of solar panels being constructed around parking lots, for example, as opposed to on farmland that is currently being used for crops.
According to his math, Mr. Wilkins said the state needs to take between 5% to 8% of farmland out of use for crops in order to meet new requirements for renewable energy that were approved earlier in the year by the General Assembly.
State Sen. Stephanie Hansen, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Environment Committee, gave an overview of those new requirements.
She said with the passage of Senate Bill 33, Delaware is now required to have 40% renewable energy in its energy mix by 2035. She said currently about 20% to 25% of the state’s energy sources come from renewable energy.
“If you go to flip your switch on, you don’t just have energy from one source. You have energy from many different sources,” Sen. Hansen said. “The makeup of those sources is quite varied.”
Renewable energy can come from a variety of sources, she said, like wind turbines or hydroelectric dams. Right now, Sen. Hansen said, Delaware purchases the majority of its renewable energy from out of state.
She said that is a lost opportunity for the state and represents dependency on other states. She said there are pros to encouraging the production of solar energy or other renewable energies in Delaware.
“If we keep it here in our state, it’s jobs here for us,” Sen. Hansen said. “The cost of solar is competitive and/or lower than natural gases. It’s certainly lower than coal right now. It means less expense on your electric bill if we’re switching over to solar, which helps your constituents as well.”
Sen. Hansen said Delaware also ranks 50th in renewable energy production.
“We need to do as much as we can, reasonably, moving forward to get more renewables into our state,” she said. “(Washington, D.C.) is the only place that generates less energy in their border than Delaware.”
Terry Pepper, president of the commissioners, asked Sen. Hansen if the counties had a say before SB33 was approved about what effect the push for solar might have on county land.
“I’ve been asked by numerous people about that and I didn’t have an answer,” he said.
Sen. Hansen said she didn’t think the counties were specifically “brought to the table” for the discussion. She said the goal was to encourage the production of solar in the state and examine what the process looks like for approval.
She said the land-use decision, or where solar can be built, ultimately is up to the county.
"That is truly your domain, that is truly up to you,” Sen. Hansen said. “You represent the constituents in this area and it’s up to you to do the weighing between the scenic value versus farm value versus property rights issues versus a state environmental obligation. Where the actual use is then put is really your purview.”
Commissioner Pepper suggested the counties be brought into the discussion earlier on.
“We’re not against solar whatsoever,” he said. “The concern is, where it’s going to be and how it’s going to affect the people that live around it.”