LAURINBURG — Across rural Southeastern North Carolina, on acres that lie under wide expanses of uninterrupted sky, a new kind of farm is cropping up — part of an energy industry that has been estimated at a collective total of more than $1 billion.
Solar farming, which harnesses the power of the sun and distributes that power back into an electric grid for a profit, is a relatively new practice, driven in part by large tax incentives, the availability of low-cost land and small municipalities hungry for a boost in tax revenue.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade organization, has ranked North Carolina fifth in the nation for solar electric capacity, with enough equipment installed by 137 solar companies across the state to generate 388 megawatts — enough to power 36,800 homes.
Scotland County is proving to be no exception to the state rule, with requests for solar farms appearing on city and county agendas nearly every month.
Laurinburg is home to two such farms, operating on U.S. 401 and Leisure Road and on U.S. 74 near the Stewartsville Road overpass. A third lies on city property near the intersection of Hall Street and Stewartsville Road, but is not yet online.
The Scotland County Board of Commissioners approved conditional-use permits, which are required for farms to move into areas zoned other than industrial, for two more solar farms on Monday — a 135-acre setup on Skyway Church Road, near the Laurinburg-Maxton Airbase, and a 47-acre farm on Springs Mill Road, near Dorset Drive.
O2 Energies, a firm with several solar farms in Robeson County, is currently exploring the possibility of constructing a solar farm on a 55-acre site owned by St. Andrews University and located adjacent to Laurinburg Maxton-Airport property. That request is awaiting FAA approval.
Another request, for a Strata Solar installation located on farmland on John’s Road, near the campus of Scotland Memorial Hospital, has not passed quietly, going as far as Scotland County Superior Court — where a judge on Jan. 24 struck down the Laurinburg City Council’s denial of a conditional-use permit.
The council argued that the installation of solar panels, hotly contested by nearby residents and the land’s farmer, was not in keeping with its current surroundings. Two weeks remain for the council to appeal, or a conditional-use permit must be issued.
In passing the conditional-use permits Monday, county commissioners debated whether or not they would welcome a description of Scotland County as a hotspot for solar energy.
Like other rural counties to which solar farms have flocked, Scotland has plenty of flat, wide-open space that is offered up at a cheap price — and companies are quick to jump at the opportunity to cash in on a hot southern sun.
“In general, I think what the developers are looking for is low-cost land that is on a place in the electric grid where they can easily send that solar to the grid, which means that it’s near a city center, with power lines the correct size to accept that sort of energy,” said Tommy Cleveland, renewable energy project coordinator in the Clean Energy Applications team at the N.C. Solar Center, of N.C. State University.
But what also has attracted solar firms to the state is the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, issued in 2008, which requires investor-owned utilities to supply at least 12.5 percent of its energy with renewable energy resources. For rural cooperatives, that number is 10 percent.
In 2008 alone, the number of megawatts installed across the state increased by 571 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
North Carolina also offers hefty tax credits to corporations who install renewable energy systems, including passive solar. The state, according to the Clean Energy Authority, an industry publication, will rebate 35 percent, up to $2.5 million, of the cost of an eligible investment. There is also an abatement that prevents solar farms from being taxed as high as a business or corporation that would otherwise occupy that space.
So how much money does a standard solar farm have the potential to collect?
According to Randy Wheeless, a spokesperson for Duke/Progress, his company pays about 5 or 6 cents per kilowatt generated. Most average-sized farms have the capacity to generate 1,000 watts per day, but Wheeless stressed that such farms usually only operate on an annual average capacity of 20 percent, once clouds and nightfall are taken into effect.
At that rate, an average solar farm could make up to $105,000 each year.
“It is profitable,” Cleveland said. “It’s not an endeavor that has very large margins but it is certainly profitable for them.”
A solar firm also employs very few workers. There is little maintenance required, and any trimming or removal of grass that grows around the panels is usually done by sheep. Solar farms also require very little attention from the county.
And Cleveland, himself a Robeson County native, is glad to see the interest solar firms are showing in the area.
“It’s clean, renewable energy that’s avoiding coal power, natural gas and nuclear energy, all three of which have environmental concerns of air and water pollution. They don’t release anything into the air and they have no toxic materials in the system at all.”
Cleveland knows that not everyone is thrilled about the proposal that brings such a significant interruption to a rural landscape, but he says he doesn’t view it as a detriment, just a “change from what we’ve done for so long.”
The industry has received a mixed reception in Robeson County with some towns, such as Fairmont and Red Springs, putting out the welcome mat and others running to bar the door. Red Springs approved a voluntary annexation of a solar farm last year that was expected to bring $13,000 in property taxes each year, while Rowland Mayor Elizabeth Hunt voiced concerns during a conditional-use process about the danger that metal structures could pose if they became airborne during a severe storm, and that once their 25-year lifespan was up, the solar firm would simply leave them there, rather than pull them out of the ground.
Residents near the proposed John’s Road farm have said in appeals and in letters to this newspaper not only that the farm would hurt their property values and be an “unsightly distraction” for locals and visitors to nearby clinics affiliated with Scotland Health Care System, but that the panels used are not made in America and there will be no permanent jobs created by the solar farm.
Strata Solar’s request for a conditional-use permit was initially denied in April by a 4-1 vote of the City Council. In November, Superior Court Judge Jack Hooks heard the energy company’s appeal, with a group of Laurinburg homeowners intervening on the side of the city. The council contended that the farm was not in harmony with its surroundings, one of four general standards typically used by municipalities when granting a permit.
In comments made to the council, Lance Williams, a representative of the solar firm, said the investment into the Johns Road parcel would be between $12 million and $15 million and, with the state’s tax abatement, would pay taxes based on $3 million per year.
At the county’s rate of $1.03 per $100 of property, the county stands to gain $30,900 annually.
Though Mayor Tommy Parker has said the city will meet to discuss the possibility of appealing the Superior Court decision with the state Court of Appeals, John Walter Jones, who currently farms the land for which the solar farm is proposed, is not optimistic.
“I think we’re going to lose the farmland to the solar,” he said.
The proposed solar farm location, on John’s Road/U.S. 501, south of Laurinburg but within the city’s two-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction, has been farmed for at least 50 years, said Jones, who noted that his position is hardly singular.
“If we keep losing farmland, what are the farmers going to do?” Jones said. “Farmers feed the country.”
Jones’ sister, Elizabeth Turner, owns the farmland. She declined to comment for this story.
At the county board’s Monday meeting, Commissioner Bob Davis mused that the gleam of solar arrays would continue to wash over Scotland County, as farming for sun has proven to be more profitable than working the soil.
“The landowner, for this 47 acres for example, is probably (paid) $700 or $800 an acre for whatever the life of the contract is,” he said. “You can’t make $700 or $800 an acre off of crops. It’s a lucrative thing and there’s not a whole lot of risk.”
Jones, who stands only to lose from the farm’s installation, says he’s not against solar farms, just the choice to locate them on otherwise fertile ground.
“I don’t see a way to keep it from happening — big money talks and the little man doesn’t stand a chance anymore,” he said.
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, Ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco. Mary Katherine Murphy contributed to this report. She can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 17 and on Twitter @emkaylbg.