ROWLAND – A thriving solar industry has flocked to the flat farmland of southeastern North Carolina, bringing jobs and pumping tax revenue into some of the state’s poorest counties.
But in recent months, signs have pointed to growing opposition to solar farms. Town leaders, neighbors and farmers are showing up at meetings to voice worries over possible toxins, health risks and property values, sometimes outnumbering supporters for the industry.
In two cases, opponents have succeeded in blocking new solar farms in Robeson and Scotland counties.
A lawyer for landowners who were denied a permit last week by the Robeson County Board of Commissioners says the unfounded worries are putting in jeopardy a lucrative industry.
“Every solar company’s eyes are on this decision,” said Mark Brooks, whose clients sought a conditional-use permit to allow 26,000 solar panels off N.C. 130 near Rowland. “I think we can say goodbye to green energy. I think we can say goodbye to solar panel companies.”
In a separate case, the Laurinburg Planning Board on March 12 denied the same company, Strata Solar of Chapel Hill, a permit for panels off U.S. 501.
Both boards had approved similar solar arrays in the past. But more opponents are showing up to hearings.
“Can you imagine what (the companies) will do if they find that a permit was denied?” Brooks asked. “Not on the basis of sound material evidence, but on the basis of fear and speculation?”
To Rowland Mayor Elizabeth Hunt, the concerns aren’t unfounded.
“It’s not an issue of trust. It’s not technology lagging behind. It’s the unknown,” Hunt told Robeson County commissioners during the April 1 hearing on the Strata farm. She said she read that materials in the panels contained toxins that could leak into groundwater or sewer systems.
“We’ve been talking about solar farms in Robeson County since 2007,” Hunt said. “That’s just about five years. We ask that you do consider the long-term health issues.”
Hunt, whose town was hit by a tornado in April 2011, said she worried about what would happen if another natural disaster occurred.
“Who is responsible for the damage if another tornado comes through and debris from this farm is strewn throughout the town?” she said.
Walter Hodge, whose property abuts the proposed site, said he and his wife have lived in Rowland for more than 40 years.
“There has never been a study to see if they’re safe or not,” Hodge said. “Never. I’ve been on the Internet. I’ve been everywhere looking for one. There’s not one.”
Solar companies say their operations are safe.
“A solar farm has no moving parts,” said Gerry Dudzik, project developer for the proposed Rowland farm. “It uses sunlight as fuel, and as a result, there is no noise, no emissions associated with the operation of the farm.”
There is no evidence of leaking toxins, ground erosion or any effect on property values, the industry says.
Strata, which has six farms in Robeson, Hoke and Columbus counties, was caught off guard by the permit denials. Robeson commissioners had approved four other permits for Strata in Shannon, St. Pauls, Maxton and Rowland.
Blair Schoof, vice president of marketing for Strata, said the company plans to appeal Robeson County’s decision.
“We still feel Robeson County has been a great place to do business,” Schoof said. “So far, we’ve been well received by the county and the towns we’ve worked in.”
Strata submitted site plans to officials in Red Springs on Wednesday to build another farm there. Red Springs Mayor John McNeill said the town has worked with Strata for nearly a year, and he calls the plan a “win-win.” He doesn’t expect opposition from residents.
“I’m sure they’ll be curious and will have some questions that we’ll have to answer,” McNeill said.
Another company, O2 Energies of Cornelius, is expanding into Robeson County, too. Last month, the commissioners approved an application for the company’s third solar array in the county. Commissioner Jerry Stephens was the only opponent to that permit, saying it was near his childhood home.
“You can’t pull them up once you’ve put them down,” Stephens said. “I’m not comfortable with it.”
Joel Olsen, managing director of O2 Energies, said the board’s denial of the Strata permit hasn’t given him pause about continuing work in the county, but industries must educate and listen to the community.
“Our experience in Robeson County, they have been forward-looking,” Olsen said. “Like any development, it’s important to look at the community and find the right location.”
Major N.C. industry
Solar power is part of a $3.7 billion clean energy industry in the state that has created an estimated 15,200 jobs. An industry association says 1,100 clean energy companies now do business in 86 of 100 counties.
Strata Solar says each of its solar farms in Robeson County produces enough energy to power about 750 homes a year. The electricity is fed into power grids for utilities.
A three- to four-month installation of a solar farm involves about 120 workers and generates more than $250,000 in wages, lodging and supplies. Each farm adds $15 million to the property tax base, Strata said.
Solar companies say their investments can lead to ancillary industries such as manufacturing. Unemployment in Robeson County was 12.9 percent as of February, among the highest in the state.
When Strata went before the Laurinburg Planning Board in March for a permit, residents brought up complaints similar to the Rowland case. They said they worried about the visibility of the panels and drainage causing harm to surrounding farmland. Six residents showed up to oppose it; the only supporters were project representatives.
The board voted unanimously to recommend denial of the permit.
Laurinburg already has two solar farms, said Brandi Deese, the planning and development director.
“We did not foresee the kind of opposition we saw at the Planning Board meeting,” she said.
The City Council will consider Strata’s permit at a public hearing Tuesday.
“A lot of it is the fear of the unknown,” Deese said.
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