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Solar is sprouting on only a fraction of NC farmland, study says

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A new cash crop is flourishing on farmland across North Carolina.

But it’s been as welcome in some communities as a wave of invasive horseweed.

Solar companies need expanses of open land for their vast arrays of electricity-producing panels, and farmers have become their favorite source.

More than two-thirds of large-scale solar farms in North Carolina sit on land that was used for crops or grazing as recently 2008, according to a report published Tuesday by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

Solar critics often point to those rows of gleaming panels where corn, tobacco and sweet potatoes once grew as evidence that North Carolina’s $96 billion agriculture industry — the largest in the state — and signature rural landscape are threatened by a burgeoning clean energy movement.

However, ground-based solar facilities with at least one megawatt of capacity cover just 0.27% of the state’s nearly 11 million acres of agricultural land, the association found.

“The data collected … in this report show that this concern is simply not true,” Jerry Carey, the group’s market intelligence specialist, said of the belief that solar projects are eating up farmland at an alarming pace. “In fact, these industries complement each other well in driving economic opportunities for rural communities across our state.”

Parks, golf courses and single-family residential developments, meanwhile, account for more than 10% of former agricultural land, the study said.

‘No-brainer’Concerns about vanishing farms and country vistas have prompted a handful of local governments in North Carolina to turn away large solar projects or issue moratoriums to block them.

That was the case in April when commissioners in Catawba County unanimously rejected a rezoning request for a proposed a 58-megawatt, 600-acre solar project on a mix of farmland and forest.

The rejection — which contradicted the county planning board’s recommendation to approve the project — came nearly a year to the day after Duke Energy and Wells Fargo announced an agreement that would allow the financial services company to buy all of the electricity generated at the planned site.

Wells Fargo said at the time that the project would supply more than half the electricity for its 7.5 million square feet of facilities — supporting 36,000 employees — within Duke Energy’s service area in North and South Carolina.

The owner of one of multiple properties that make up the site of the proposed solar farm told the Winston-Salem Journal in a phone interview Monday that the commissioners’ rejection “came out of the blue.”

“I’ve called two of them, but they won’t talk to me,” said the property owner, who asked not to be identified because the project remains a contentious issue in the area. “Nobody can give us a straight answer” about why the rezoning request was rejected.

The solar farm also would have boosted the economy and added tax revenue without requiring new roads or infrastructure, or burdening local emergency services and schools, the property owner added.

“It was a no-brainer to me,” the property owner said.

Limited lifespan

In its analysis, the sustainable energy association identified more than 700 solar energy systems in the state with a capacity of at least one megawatt, occupying more than 38,000 acres.

A little more than 23,600 acres, or 62%, of that total involved land classified as “cultivated cropland” in 2008, and another 7% was former pastureland.

Solar projects account for about 0.12% of all land area in the state, according to the report.

The group also noted that unlike new residential communities — which dominate agricultural redevelopment — solar farms are planned with a specific lifespan, typically about 25 years.

“In some cases, these facilities may be modified or repowered at the end of their useful life, but they can also be returned to their previous land use provided that certain precautions are taken during the initial construction phases,” the report said. “The same cannot be said for these other types of land uses.”

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

jdeem@wsjournal.com

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