North Carolina has had a 40-year love affair with solar energy, the latest offspring of which are so-called solar farms: rows and rows of glass panels tilting their gray faces toward the sun.
Richmond County has six such farms, plus one approved but not yet under construction and one on 200 acres on the eastern edge of Hamlet awaiting City Council approval. The new “farm” would be among almost 30 in the state built by ESA Renewables of Sanford, Florida.
Fields of solar-collection panels may be called “farms,” but they’re not agriculture — although some people try to make them so by allowing sheep to graze alongside the panels.
Their financial appeal, at least in Richmond County, is to those who work the land — so much so that the local Cooperative Extension office has conducted workshops to tell farmers what they ask before leasing acreage to a solar-energy company.
“It’s a huge boon to farmers on several fronts,” said Paige Burns, a horticultural agent with the Richmond County Extension who has conducted such workshops.
“It’s almost a place holder” for farmers who want to hold on to acreage for use later, she said. And, “for the most part, it’s pretty benign.”
That is, it doesn’t harm the land. And it sure doesn’t hurt the pocketbook.
Solar farms come with very little in the way of permanent structure to disrupt the land: maybe a concrete pad where the panels are connected to the collection grid.
They can be broken down and recycled at the end of a lease, which usually comes at about the same time the equipment becomes outdated and/or unreliable.
“Basically, everything pops out, and a lot of it is even recycled,” Burns said, which means the materials that generate solar energy have a dual environmental benefit: They reduce the use of fuels that release carbon into the atmosphere, and they waste very little material themselves.
“You can’t undo a housing development or a parking lot,” Burns said, “but solar farms, you can undo.”
Plus, they’re “great for the counties, because the counties get a tax boost.”
Changing history, reshaping the economy
The family of County Manager Bryan Land has allowed a solar-energy company to lease acreage once used for camping and congregating at NASCAR races, off U.S. 1 in Marston.
“It’s a great opportunity for my family, with the days of NASCAR leaving,” Land said. “It was an opportunity to turn a dormant piece of property into an income piece of property.”
Plus, he said, his family is “definitely pro solar.”
Greentegrity Land Investment of the Raleigh area has petitioned the City of Hamlet to allow a solar farm on part of a 200-acre plot that fronts U.S. 74 just east of town. City Clerk and Zoning Administrator Gail Strickland said the city was waiting to hear from Greentegrity before rescheduling the hearing.
An internet search reveals that Yan Solihin, a tenured full professor of electrical and chemical engineering at N.C. State University, owns Greentegrity. He also is a program director at the Division of Computer and Network Systems at the National ScienceFoundation. He could not be reached for comment.
A spokeswoman for ESA Renewables did not return multiple telephone calls.
In North Carolina, as with families who lease their land for solar farms, the history of solar energy is bound up inextricably in both economic and environmental concerns.
“North Carolina (has) a long tradition in clean energy, back to (President Jimmy) Carter,” said Steve Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State University in Raleigh.
“There’s been a lot of people focused on the topic since way back when.”
Carter was president from 1977 to 1981.
N.C. State founded the technology center in 1988. Seven years earlier, it had built the Solar House, which runs completely on energy from sunshine.
At first, the state’s emphasis on solar power was like N.C. State’s: on individuals, not industry, and the granting of tax breaks for people who installed solar panels on their houses.
Generating and gathering solar energy industrially was expensive, so much so that Duke Energy complained when the state told it that a certain percentage of the energy the company sold had to come from alternative sources.
In 2007, Kalland said, coal-fired nuclear power cost 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour to generate; solar power cost 19. Even wind — gathered in other parts of the country where Duke generated and sold power — cost only 4 cents per kilowatt hour.
Partly in response to Duke Energy’s complaints, the General Assembly set price caps in place in 2007, absolving Duke of having to buy alternative energy it thought was too expensive.
According to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, House Bill 589 was “a major step forward in energy policy to ensure North Carolina remains competitive in the global economy.” The bill followed months of negotiations among “renewable-energy, customer-advocate and utility organizations.”
And then, Kalland said, came the “sweet spot” of 2008: Solar costs fell even as the costs for traditional sources of energy rose. Solar energy had become cheaper than natural gas, cheaper than coal.
And solar jobs tended to be in the cities and suburbs, where people were more likely to want to work, and not in remote, poverty-stricken areas such as Appalachia.
A decade later, Kalland said, solar still hasn’t caught on with everyone.
The “pack mentality” that guides political choices still favors traditional, union-produced power, he said. But as solar begins to lead the pack in price and sustainability, that may change.
As for Duke Energy …
“It’s now one of the biggest supporters of solar,” Kalland said.
Duke Energy Renewables owns more than 100 megawatts of generating capacity at 17 solar farms across the country. That includes six 1-megawatt solar farms, in Shelby, Taylorsville and Murphy, North Carolina.
Five years ago, “nobody thought that solar would be the cheapest renewable fuel,” Kalland said. Now, not even those enamored of traditional fuels want “to be Blockbuster in a world of Netflix.”
How good is solar energy, really?
It’s tough to find people who object to solar these days, except those who would rather gaze across a field of grassland than one with ranks of solar panels marching toward the sun.
Requirements to provide plant screens ameliorate some of that concern, though.
Too, a farmer who leases his land for a solar farm is likely to lose tax breaks that accompany agricultural uses — but the money from leasing is likely to erase that.
And farmers who habitually lease the land they plant might find empty, arable acreage more difficult to find if solar farms really catch on: Solar-farm leases pay double what a farmer would for rent.
But for now, the worry of running out of rentable land seems remote.
So the pluses, Kalland said, outweigh the negatives:
• Solar farms not only don’t hurt the land but are easily broken down and recycled at the end of a long-term lease.
• They also don’t hurt people. Solar farms contain no toxic materials, create no harmful electromagnetic fields and are highly unlikely to spark fires.
“You’d pretty much have to want to hurt yourself,” Kalland said — maybe by trying to chew through the razor-wire fencing that surrounds a farm.
• Any infrastructure lies below plowing level, so it wouldn’t have to be dug up if the land were to revert to agricultural use.
• Soil compaction and acidity/alkalinity changes can be remediated.
And, of course, there is the environmental advantage.
The use of solar energy itself lowers both the carbon footprint of an individual consumer and of the industry that buys and sells it.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]