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Solar engineer, forestry prof address landowners

By Bill Frazer

The Annual Forest Landowner Meeting was held last Thursday night at the Farmers’ Federation Building in Lafayette. One of the speakers at the event was Dustin Shively, a Clenera Solar Energy Engineer. Clenera Solar Energy is the owner of the LaFayette Solar Farm. Also, addressing the crowd was Dr. Lori Eckhardt, professor at Auburn University’s School Of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

If you live in the LaFayette area, you can’t miss the 700 acres of solar panels being constructed along the south city limits of LaFayette. What is most unusual is this is reportedly the largest Solar Panel Farm in Alabama and one the largest in the South. Mr. Shively, who is a Boise State engineer specializing in solar energy, gave a talk on SOLAR FARM ENGINEERING. It is certainly unusual that a resident of Boise, Idaho, would address a small landowner gathering in a small southern town.

Mr. Shively addressed the decision by Clenera to choose LaFayette as a site for this massive project. He stated that there are four major factors that lead solar investors to choose a site for a solar farm. One, there has to be a market for sale of the energy created. If there are no companies, such as Alabama Power Company that would purchase the power generated, then there is no reason to construct a solar farm. It is certainly more economical to construct a plant on flat land like the desert, but there would be no reason to make the investment without a market for the energy. Two, there has to be a grid to distribute the power to the users. The LaFayette solar site lies directly under the Alabama Power’s high voltage line. Three, the topography has to be level enough to accommodate the construction costs. Underlying rock is a major concern for the location. Also, environmental considerations have to be taken into account. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) would not approve massive land erosion. Four, taken into consideration are the local incentives for construction of a solar farm. Taxes have to be favorable as regardless of a receptive market, a tax incentive has be a considerable. If the taxes on the solar farm are based on construction costs per acre, there is no incentive to build a solar farm. Ad valorem taxes at the going rate on an acre of solar farm appraised at $1,000,000 per acre cost is definitely prohibitive.

Mr. Shively mentioned that the LaFayette Solar Farm, for the average town, would produce enough energy to power 20,000 homes. He also mentioned that the life of a solar farm is 35 years.

He made it clear to the audience that Clenera wanted to be a part of the Chambers County community including providing social services.

After a delicious meal of poppy seed chicken and squash casserole, Dr. Lori Eckhardt addressed the attendees. She is a professor of Integrated Forest Pathology and Entomology at the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University and gave a talk entitled COMPLEXITY OF RECENT PINE TREE LOSSES IN SOUTHERN FORESTS.

The talk began with an overview of the primary bark beetles that attack southern yellow pine with a special focus on the primary two—the Southern Pine beetle and the Ips Engraver beetle. This talk was of particular interest to landowners because of the increase of bug activity over the past year. Dr. Eckhardt reports that the drought of late 2016 created conditions favorable for beetle outbreak. During late 2016 and early 2017, many outbreaks were reported as expected. Nearly every site visited by Dr. Eckhardt was infested with the Ips beetle. Its attack pattern is very random, with spots including between 5 and 20 trees, but rarely over that amount in a single area. However, several individual spots can be scattered throughout a stand of timber. Ips beetles are very small and can be identified by what could be described as a “bite” having been taken out their backsides. They also leave signs such as pitch tubes on the flat plates of the pine bark and ”Y” shaped galleries left under the bark.

Regarding the Southern Pine Beetle (SPB), Dr. Eckhardt reports this species has historically been the most destructive of the group. Major outbreaks have been cyclical every 7 to 9 years. The last major outbreak in the Chambers County area was 2001; so unfortunately, Dr. Eckhardt reports that we are”overdue” for another major occurrence. Recent trappings studies have shown SPB numbers to be down, which up to now is not explained as to why, but contributes to why we have not had a recent outbreak. However, she reports that there have been recent outbreaks on in Alabama National Forests, namely the Bankhead National Forest and the Talladega National Forest. National Forests are subject to harvest restriction that could make any attempts to control the outbreaks difficult. And if these outbreaks leave the borders of the National Forests, they could indeed become problems for private landowners. SPB are small, about the size of the tip of a pencil. They have smooth, rounded backsides when compared to IPS. They leave signs such as pitch tubes between the crevices of the pine bark plate, and “S” shaped galleries under the bark.

Regarding detection of outbreaks, the Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) conducts periodic flights to record the location of suspected beetle attack. These locations are sent to the county AFC employees who check the spots on the ground and notify landowners if there is indeed an active spot.

Dr. Eckhardt encouraged landowners to engage a forestry consultant/professional if a spot was found on their property. There are many factors to consider on how to manage an active spot, and a forestry consultant would be able to help the landowner navigate these considerations. Dr. Eckhardt reports that Ips beetles, for an example, would often “run its course” without claiming what might be considered too much damage. But the SBP has the potential to spread quickly and a forester would know how to cut off the spread in such a way to minimize the damage done. This talk was informative and helpful to timberland owners.
Thanks to all the local sponsors and parties supporting the program such that the local landowners and interested parties were exposed to data provided by the leaders in the solar energy field and problems of beetle infestations in pine forests.