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Quarles queried about rural Internet, solar farms

After making his opening remarks, Kentucky Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dr. Ryan F. Quarles opened the floor to questions. The topic quickly went from agriculture to the Internet.
“How much longer do we have to go to get broadband here in rural Kentucky,” Randy Stroup, owner of First Class Services asked.

State Representatives Suzanne Miles and Josh Calloway attended the meeting, as well as Hancock County Judge/Executive Chic Roberts. They took turns addressing the issue. Miles said monies exist for providing broadband service, but issues remain regarding awarding the monies.

In the past, no accountability existed regarding companies offering rural broadband Internet, with some claiming to offer broadband to an area when only a small block of homes actually possessed broadband. Roberts said companies cherry picked areas to offer broadband service, and then claimed the entire area possessed broadband.

Hancock County Industrial Foundation Director Mike Baker further addressed this situation. He said most broadband companies show Hancock County with Internet speeds of 25 MB per second download speeds, but the reality is far different.

“If you do a test your Internet speed in Hancock County, you probably will be lucky to get 1.5 MB per second down,” Baker said.

“The first thing that has to happen is we need to get accurate maps of what is really here.”

Miles and Roberts said the state must step in and make these companies prove their maps. If a company claims an area possesses 25 MB download speeds, the company needs to prove all the houses in a specific census block with Internet actually has that speed.

Roberts said part of the problem in getting broadband to rural Kentucky is the Public Service Commission. Until earlier this year, the PSC forbade electric cooperatives in the state from offering broadband Internet.

“Broadband is the electrical issue of this generation,” Baker said.

“We ran fiber cable from North Hancock Elementary to the Lewisport shopping center to power new equipment at the Owensboro Community and Technical College campus. They put in a million dollars of new equipment in it but…they could not do anything with it because they had to have good Internet to run it.”

He said it cost $20,000 per mile to run the two miles of cable to the shopping center. Baker said no way existed for a private company to run cable to all the homes in the county due to the cost.

“It has to be a partnership between people like Kenergy,” Baker said. “If you have lights to your farm, if you have electricity to your farm, you can have broadband. It is going to have to be done or Kentucky is going to fall further behind.”

Baker said phone and electric cooperatives in Indiana and Tennessee began to partner to provide Internet service years ago. Quarles said his office would issue letters of support to any project seeking to provide broadband to rural Kentucky.

“We have been talking about this for over 20 years ago,” Stroup said.

“It is like we are walking with bubble gum on our shoes! Over 60-percent of farm operations in Kentucky cannot get decent internet.”

After discussing the Internet issue, Hancock Bank and Trust president Rodney Perkins brought up the issue of solar farms, and if it concerned him. The amount of farmland being examined as places to erect solar farms total about 25,000 to 30,000 acres, Quarles said. Quarles said he respects property rights, and does not disagree with a farmer selling land for solar farms; regulations concerning solar farms concern him.

“There is a lack of uniformity of regulations and guidelines statewide,” Quarles said.
Quarles asked a simple question to underscore his point about the lack of regulations and guidelines.
“What happens if the solar company is bought out or moves out or the solar panels become obsolete?” Quarles asked.

Who bears the responsibility to remove the solar panels?

Is it the landowner or the company? Quarles said in some of these contracts with solar companies the landowner owns the panels, in other contracts they do not. He said some people propose solar companies create a fund to remove solar panels when the farm becomes obsolete and is shuttered.

Quarles said another question is does the company contacting the landowner actually have connections to the power grid for the electricity generated by the farm. Quarles said he heard about situations in other states in which a solar farm company contacted landowners and erected panels on their farm, but no connection to the power grid existed. The company just wanted to build the farm.

“What is the point?” Quarles asked.
Quarles said various groups are working on the issue.
“I think it will be helpful to have statewide guidelines,” Quarles said.

By Ralph Dickerson

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