I recently attended a solar farm information meeting sponsored by the Sandhills Area Land Trust, Green Fields Sandhills, and the Moore County Agricultural Extension Service. Having heard and read about issues related to solar farm development, I wanted to learn more.

My preconceived bias has been to favor solar production of electricity as a more environmentally sustainable means of meeting our energy needs. Yet there seem to be some concerns about solar that do not jibe with my positive view of the technology.

Speakers included Tommy Cleveland, Renewable Energy Project coordinator with the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at NCSU, speaking on the technology of solar farms. And Edgar Miller, government relations director for the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, spoke on preserving farmland, and supporting regional agricultural planning and development.

I have always talked about “solar farms.” Highlighting the divide that seems to exist, Miller pointed out that one state legislator has told him that he should not refer to them as solar “farms.” He said he considers them to be solar “facilities” since, in his view, they do not produce typical farm products.

Moderating the discussion was Jesse Wimberly with SALT. He pointed out that while North Carolina’s ag industry is the No. 1 economic driver in the state, with income of $84 billion, agriculture is underperforming for many farmers in terms of their ability to produce viable incomes. Based on the meeting turnout, there are certainly farmers looking at new revenue options.

Cleveland pointed out an interesting dichotomy between North Carolina and many other states in how solar electricity production has developed. While a number of other states have a predominance of commercial and residential rooftop solar panels, North Carolina’s solar production is coming predominantly from utility-scale solar farms.

Could this difference in scale be at the heart of solar’s somewhat controversial status among some in North Carolina? Seeing fields of solar panels certainly impacts the landscape much more than panels tucked discreetly on roofs of homes and businesses. How many of us have even noticed the large number of solar panels located across the street from the Southern Pines Public Library? Yet I am sure many of us can quickly visualize the solar farm that we pass driving along N.C. 211 near Eagle Springs.

North Carolina has taken legislative steps in the past that have encouraged solar power production. Many of us have heard of the solar tax credit that helped offset the initial cost of creating a solar facility. The state also required a specified amount of electric power production that our utilities had to produce from solar, gave an 80 percent property tax abatement, and required utilities to enter into a minimum of 15-year fixed-price power purchase agreements with solar producers.

Taking these steps before other states led North Carolina to develop a more robust solar sector. Even with the legislative repeal of the solar tax credit, there is still interest in developing more utility-level solar farms.

So what are some of the benefits of solar? Based on the number of farmers in attendance, the typical lease rates of $600 to $800 per acre per year must be a motivating factor for them to consider solar leases. According to Cleveland, he has even heard of lease rates as high as $1,200 per acre per year for farms particularly well-located relative to the necessary connections to the electric distribution system.

Beyond the lease rates, solar produces other societal benefits. According to a recent Department of Energy study, there are public health benefits of clean air and water in the Southeast of $.08 per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. Solar electricity is actually becoming less expensive to produce than electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear plants. Even with the 80 percent tax abatement, a typical 5-megawatt solar farm still increases property tax value by $100,000.

And let us not forget those all-important jobs that seem to be such a focus of our national political scene. Over a 25-year period, every 44 acres of solar farms produce one job for that period.

A recent study of solar’s impact in the Duke Power system found that ratepayers would actually save $10 billion with a sixfold increase in solar production, allowing the shuttering of coal plants ahead of schedule and eliminating the need for a new planned nuclear plant.

Given all these positives, what, then, are the concerns about solar? I look forward to addressing them in a future column.

Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.

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