Solar farmers 'harvest' electricity
ROWLAND, N.C. — Just off a country road is a sight few people ever imagined in this corner of southeastern North Carolina.
Solar panels cover a 35-acre field that once produced corn, tobacco and other crops. When the sun shines, the panels generate enough electricity for hundreds of homes.
“I initially thought this was a pipe dream,” said farmer Billy Dean Hunt, recalling discussions with a solar company about using his cornfield for a sun farm. “But I started talking to them. They convinced me they would honor what they said. So I did it.”
The scene near Rowland is found increasingly across North Carolina. Solar farms dot the landscape from the Blue Ridge mountains to the sandy coastal plain — the result of an emerging renewable-energy industry.
In many cases, solar farms are replacing cropland that doesn't generate enough income from traditional farming. Other times, solar farms are being placed on vacant industrial sites or land that hasn't grown crops in years.
Unlike many other Southern states, North Carolina has encouraged the development of solar power through generous tax incentives and a state law requiring electric utilities to use some renewable energy. These policies are a key reason North Carolina often rates high in national rankings of solar-friendly states — and why solar farms are growing steadily.
“This shows we are progressive,” said Laurinburg, N.C., Mayor Thomas Parker, whose community has a solar farm similar to the ones in nearby Rowland. “Anytime we can add a dollar to the tax base, we are interested. I believe in it. I think this will be more prevalent in the future.”
Since 2007, when North Carolina began requiring power companies to use renewable energy, about 100 solar farms have registered to open, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a group that tracks the sun business.
Some of those may not have cranked up yet, but the association says the number of companies registering with the state gives an indication of the interest. Before the law passed five years ago, North Carolina didn't have any solar farms, the association reports.
The increase in solar farms reflects a larger trend in North Carolina, where investor-owned utilities must provide up to 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources.
North Carolina's renewable and energy efficiency industry employs more than 15,000 people and has generated some $3.7 billion in gross revenue this year, the association says. Companies providing solar services have increased 76 percent since the renewable energy requirement passed the N.C. Legislature five years ago, according to surveys by the Sustainable Energy Association.
The idea behind North Carolina's solar effort is to diversify energy sources and stimulate the economy with a relatively new type of industry.
Solar will never replace traditional power sources because the sun doesn't shine all the time. But solar boosters say efforts like North Carolina's can reduce dependence on coal and nuclear power and stabilize electric bills for customers. Coal and nuclear power plants, both of which create toxic waste, buy fuel from out of state to make energy, and fuel supplies such as coal are subject to price variability.
Solar farms are large-scale projects intended to provide power for the electrical grid, which has historically relied almost entirely on coal, nuclear, hydro and natural gas. Solar farms provide far more energy than solar panels on homes.
Solar farms periodically spark questions about whether they are appropriate in some communities. Some people say they are unsightly and take up too much space, while others question whether it's a good idea to replace productive farmland with solar farms.
Conservative lawmakers also question the wisdom of adopting government policies to encourage an industry they say would have trouble surviving on its own. Efforts are under way in North Carolina and, possibly at the federal level, to scale back incentives and requirements for renewable energy.
To Helen and Tom Livingston, solar farms are a great idea.
She and her younger brother decided this spring not to replant a 47-acre cotton field their family has owned for generations. For much of the next three decades, their family will be paid to rent the land to sun-power developer Strata Solar.
Details of the arrangement were not available, but Strata typically pays about $500 to $600 per acre annually. That would be more than $20,000 each year for the 47-acre plot in Robeson County, N.C.
“It is almost too good to pass up,” said Helen Livingston, 71. “For us, it wasn't just the money. It was the excitement of having a solar farm. But I think people would see that it does pay more than farming.”
Livingston said producing energy from the sun helps reduce dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins need trade-deadline acquisitions to bring toughness
- Panthers still clinging to hope entering home finale
- Gorman: Indiana has its ‘Hoosiers’
- Blue Jays’ Martin has ‘nothing but praise’ for former Pirates teammates
- Burrell’s Beattie taking final shot at PIAA title
- Mt. Lebanon senior Stout has legacy that links to Kurt Angle
- Southmoreland, Mt. Pleasant wrestlers look forward to states
- 10th DUI earns Uptown man 1st prison sentence
- Pitt’s McConnell-Serio nominated for Naismith award
- Pitt’s Wright excelling in classroom
- New wildlife conservation officers heading to Western Pennsylvania