A New Power Play: The Sun Rises on Solar Farms in Moore
For the past decade, lush green turfgrass has sprouted from two 40-acre parcels near Eagle Springs
"Before that, we were growing cotton, tobacco and peaches," said Bill Harris, whose family owns the land.
But the acreage may soon be covered by an indigo meadow of solar panels as the rapidly emerging clean energy industry in North Carolina eyes Moore County for the first time.
Argand Energy Solutions in Charlotte has -submitted plans with the N.C. Utilities Commission for two five-megawatt solar farms on the Harris land, while Strata Solar in Chapel Hill has done the same for a seven-megawatt project on N.C. 24/27 east of Carthage.
"Right now, it's a land use that would not be permitted because there's nothing in our county code for a land use of that type," said Robert Hayter, chairman of the Moore County Planning Board. "It just hasn't come up until now."
At its monthly meeting last week, the Planning Board delayed until April a proposed text amendment to the county zoning ordinance that would allow solar farms.
"Philosophically, I'm intrigued," Hayter said. "But before we adopt this, we need to understand how it will affect the county. We just need to know more than we know tonight."
The board isn't the only county entity in the dark about the -proposed sunshine-to-electricity projects.
"We're dealing with the unknown," said Stephen Greer, the county's agriculture -extension director. "There's a real hard decision process that -farmers have to make if they're going to move into this venture. It's similar to the -discussion we had two decades ago when cellular -telephone towers were going up all over the place."
A New Dynamic
Pat Corso, -executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, called the apparent arrival of solar farms "an -interesting dynamic" for the county.
"What does it mean for us? How does it affect our land use plan in Moore County?" Corso said. "Nobody knows. That's the elephant in the room because we've not had that discussion or debate. It's a transition. It's a change. But we've not really delved into any of this."
The point was moot in North Carolina until 2007, when the General Assembly passed a law requiring investor-owned utilities to use renewable energy and provide 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021.
Today, more than 100 solar farms dot the landscape from the Blue Ridge mountains to the coast. In many cases, they are replacing cropland that doesn't generate enough income from traditional farming.
"The financial aspect is important, but more important to me is the fact that the use is not invasive or objectionable in any respect," Harris said. "I have the same concerns as everybody else. We want to make sure it's good for the community and a good land use for our property. It seems to be a good fit for a rural area."
Many people lease their land to investors for a range between $400-$600 per acre a year, said Miriam Makhyoun, a clean energy industry specialist at the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA).
Harris, a High Point attorney and majority owner of Sandhills Turf near Eagle Springs, said he researched the industry and Argand Energy before agreeing to a lease with the company.
"I tried to check out projects that they had in place," he said. "All the people that I've talked to recommend them very highly. They seem to be nice, reputable folks to deal with."
Argand President and CEO Erik Lensch said his company has built solar farms in North Carolina as a subcontractor.
"The projects in Moore County will be our first solo effort," Lensch said. "We should start construction in the third quarter and be finished by the end of the year."
Lensch said the projects will each take four months, cost about $13 million, and create 100 to 200 construction jobs.
"Our preference is to hire as many local people as we can," he said.
The same can be said for Strata Solar, which has become the state's dominant developer of solar power in the past two years.
"Last year, we did 12 of these projects across the state, and this year we're aiming for about 25," said Blair Schooff, the company's vice president of marketing and sales.
Incentives to Build
The rapid expansion is due in large part to federal and state tax credits - 30 percent and 35 percent, respectively - that subsidize more than half the cost of a solar
"We know the tax credits have a sunset date," Schooff said. "That's one reason every farm we do is pretty much a Model T, so we can maximize efficiencies. We look forward to a non-tax-incentive universe."
Both Argand and Strata scouted Moore County for land near existing utility substations, because cables running from the inverter on a solar farm to the substation must be buried.
"Then we just reach out and start calling landowners," Lensch said.
Argand will sell its power to Progress Energy Carolinas, Strata to the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation.
Solar power will never replace traditional power sources because the sun doesn't shine all the time. But proponents note that solar energy can reduce dependence on coal, natural gas and nuclear power, and stabilize electric bills for consumers.
A recent study commissioned by NCSEA found that the state's clean energy policies are costing electricity ratepayers less than they would have paid without the policies. By 2026, the switch to clean energy will lead to $173 million in cost savings.
"Some electricity customers in our state may think their electric bills are higher because of our state's clean energy policies," NCSEA Executive Director Ivan Urlaub said. "Plain as day on their electric bills they see 'REPS rider' and 'energy efficiency rider' and assume their bills would be lower if those charges were not there.
"In fact, this study finds that if those policies and charges did not exist, all customers' electric bills would be higher, not lower, than they are today."
The study also found that:
n While North Carolina lost more than 100,000 jobs from 2007 to 2012, the state experienced a net gain of 21,162 jobs resulting from clean energy development.
n Tax credits taken by renewable energy projects developed between 2007 and 2012 generated $1.87 in state or local revenue for every $1 of incentive. Since 2007, the state's clean energy policies have been a net revenue generator for the state of $113 million.
n From 2007 to 2012, the total economic benefit of clean energy development in North Carolina was $1.7 billion and generated $2.56 billion in associated spending.
Support For Solar
"Clean energy is creating thousands of jobs, fostering innovation and attracting billions in private investment to North Carolina," said Betsy McCorkle, director of government affairs for NCSEA. "This report is a clear indicator of the direct and indirect positive impact clean energy is having on North Carolina's economy and work force."
NCSEA released poll results last month that show North Carolinians overwhelmingly support the increased use of clean energy sources like solar. The poll found that 82.6 percent of respondents said state leaders and elected officials should seek more alternative or renewable energy sources to provide residential and commercial customers with electricity.
Seventy percent of those surveyed said their power bill had increased over the past two years, but only 5.8 percent of that number felt that it was due to increased use of renewable energy. Almost 36 percent thought it was because of power companies increasing their profits, about 21 percent felt it was due to inflation and economy, and about 15 percent said it was due to increased costs for fuel recovery, production and processing.
"People are obviously concerned about their rising energy and fuel bills," Urlaub said, "and they also overwhelmingly want our state to increase the use of clean energy."
Corso said it's too early to determine whether solar energy development is "a great thing, an OK thing or a bad thing" for Moore County.
"It appears to be good news, but with a -little subtext to it," he said. "It will be -interesting to see how this plays out across our county."
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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