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Entergy's solar farm is nearing completion and is slated to be online sometime in the fall with 50 megawatts of power being produced for the electrical grid Wednesday June 10, 2020, in Port Allen, La. Fifty megawatts would power about 9,600 homes daily.

From rural Louisiana towns to the State Capitol, officials and residents have often met a budding solar energy boom with concern or outrage.

But St. Helena Parish seems ready to embrace it.

San Francisco-based company Ecoplexus on Tuesday pitched parish leaders on plans to build a utility-scale solar plant on a stretch of open land near Pine Grove, some 40 miles north of Baton Rouge. “Utility-scale” means solar panel farms big enough to contribute to the commercial power grid.

Similar plans in nearby parishes stirred varying amounts of controversy this year, fueled by residents’ worries about solar panels' size, visual aesthetics and potential impacts on agriculture. But St. Helena Parish officials see solar plants as a chance to add tax revenue without the pitfalls of other, sometimes-messier development.

“I’m impressed. I would like to see them bring that here,” said Frank E. Johnson, president of St. Helena’s police jury, after Tuesday’s presentation. “They said this won’t create many permanent jobs, and that’s a factor. But I’d rather have the revenue for the parish. We need that.”

Just how much energy the plant would add to the grid, and how much revenue it could generate for St. Helena, aren't clear; the project is “well in the future,” said Scott Yarbrough, an Ecoplexus consultant who made Tuesday’s presentation to the police jury.

Any new industry could be a boon to job-strapped St. Helena, the least-populated parish in the Baton Rouge region, with just over 10,000 residents.

Local leaders regularly bemoan young workers departing the pine-forested rural parish for more bustling areas. A solar plant could help build the parish's tax base and add some short-term jobs on top, they say.

“It’s likely to be a win-win for the parish,” said Willie Morgan, a police juryman from the parish’s third ward.

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The Pine Grove plant would have a life of 30 to 35 years. But it wouldn’t create many jobs over the long term.

Building the plant, though, will require around 300 part-time workers. Ecoplexus will hold local job fairs for those positions and for a few long-term maintenance jobs the plant will need once it’s up and running, Yarbrough promised the police jury.

Solar projects discussed elsewhere in the Baton Rouge area, some of them just miles from the proposed Pine Grove location, raised questions and concerns among residents.

A pair of projects proposed in Tangipahoa Parish led farmers to worry the projects would harm the cultivability of rural land and leak chemicals into the soil — things renewable energy experts assured them won’t happen.

Officials there debated how to regulate the plants, which local ordinances didn't cover.

While state legislators clashed over state-level solar farm rules, the Tangipahoa Parish Council ordered a moratorium on new development and spent weeks building its own ordinance.

In St. Helena, local leaders' support for the Ecoplexus plant could portend an easier path for that project — and for future solar developments, which are well-suited to the parish's rolling hills and open fields.

Solar makes sense for an area trying to usher in development while avoiding the pitfalls of big commercial and residential projects, said Morgan. Those can heighten traffic and exacerbate flooding risk.

“It’s not a landfill, or a garbage dump, or a truck stop, or a subdivision,” Morgan said. "It’s neat and clean, and there’s no heavy truck traffic in and out.”


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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