This is a continuation of a May 10 column about solar power.
Based on a recent information meeting, some nearby landowners worry about potential negative impacts from the installation of nearby solar power units.
For one thing, how do they look?
While many recent solar farms have been required to plant screening to buffer the visual impact, there are older facilities that have no screening. Tommy Cleveland of NC State showed slides that depicted solar panels and animal houses from a distance of 500 feet. In my view, I thought the solar panels were less visually intrusive than the animal houses.
Concerns exist about how solar farm operators will control the undergrowth on the site. Will there be excessive use of herbicides? Cleveland related conversations he has had with three companies that manage about half of the solar farms in North Carolina. They typically mow and only use herbicides at the support posts for the panels and along fences and roads where mowing is not possible. Their staff is trained and certified in pesticide application.
At this point in the discussion, a local farmer who was leasing his land for a solar farm spoke up. His site was using low growing Bermuda grass that minimized the need for mowing. He also added emphatically that the solar farm operator was using far less herbicide on the site than he had used when previously growing tobacco on his property.
A concern was expressed about electromagnetic fields being produced by solar facilities. At the inverters on the interior of the site, the electromagnetic field 10 feet away is equivalent to cooking on an electric stove. Everywhere on the site, the electromagnetic fields produced are less than the international standard for allowable exposure.
Are the panels themselves a source of potential pollution when they go out of production? Except for a small amount of lead solder, everything used in the creation of a solar panel is nontoxic.
What happens when the panels cease to be used for production of electricity? Will they become an abandoned eyesore? Based on current scrap values for the contents of solar panels, the scrap value equals the removal costs. This ratio does not count the potential value of reusing the panels on another site which should be possible given that they will retain 80 percent of their production capacity in 25 years.
What about losing prime agricultural land to solar production? To me this is somewhat of a specious argument. In 2010 to 2011, when North Carolina lost 100,000 acres of farmland, only 9,000 acres of that was due to solar facilities. It would appear that there are other more significant farmland losses occurring from other sources, like urban development. Further, if people are concerned about prime land not being used for land related production like crops, why are they not then concerned about chicken or hog houses being built on that same prime land? Those structures are not using the land itself to grow crops.
Having heard all of the discussion at this event, I remain convinced that solar offers far greater benefits than detriments to our community. In fact, it appears to offer a substantial benefit to those farmers in Moore County who can add to their income and make remaining on their farms a more viable option.
Recently, Jamie Boles, our state representative, was lamenting to me the disproportionate population growth occurring in our metropolitan areas compared with rural counties like Moore. He was concerned that in the future, state resources would flow to those larger urban areas leaving our county getting the short end of the stick.
Given this very real and farsighted concern of Rep. Boles, should not our legislature consider more ways to encourage the financial viability of farms? The development of solar facilities seems to make farms where they are placed a more financially viable enterprise. If our farms become more financially viable, they will retain farmers on the land and perhaps attract others to the rural areas for which Rep. Boles is so concerned. Consequently, I hope that the state legislature will continue to promote solar by retaining the existing incentives and adopt new incentives that will allow more farmers to benefit from this additional source of income.
While our county may be known to the larger world for its golf and equestrian activities, agriculture is a bigger presence throughout the county. Those of us who are not farmers should support our neighboring farmers as they create income for themselves by producing the electricity that we all use.
It is a win/win for people throughout Moore County.