Solar Shines Light on Economy in Rural North Carolina

[originally published for UNC JOMC 565 class]

Screen shot 2014-12-08 at 10.23.29 PM

The North Carolina sun peaks out from behind clouds | Photographer: Nathan Congleton

Farmland in North Carolina is vast and green. The hills roll with expanses of open fields, cultured to maximize sunlight. Rural North Carolinians tend to these farms, providing the state and the nation with their commodities.

Near Maple View Farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the farmland looks just like this. I park in the Maple View parking lot and trudge through the grass to get to my destination, a small plot of land about 50 meters away.

I never equated farms with money. In North Carolina, the majority of farms that were filled with tobacco have gone out of business. In response, these farms have shifted gears to harvest a different sort of crop: solar energy.

I climb up the fence as I arrive, finally close enough to see the object of my curiosity. Next to the farmhouse, surrounded by a few hundred cows, are about 20 rows of solar panels. Their silver bases stick out of the ground and they glisten in the sun.

Many North Carolinians have misconceptions about what this influx of solar farms means. Residents and politicians alike have classified solar farms as a disruptive technology, which triggers debate on the impact solar farms will have on communities. Some argue that the most important aspect of solar farms is the economic benefits they provide to the rural communities that host them.

An industrial justice for the community

Markus Wilhelm is the founder of Strata Solar, North Carolina’s leading solar farm developers. Wilhelm firmly believes that hosting a solar farm can be economically beneficial for rural communities.

Unlike coal plants, Wilhelm says adding a solar farm to a poverty-stricken or rural region is an “industrial justice.” To build the farm alone, approximately 80 local residents will be trained and hired in solar construction, he says. Additionally, solar companies purchase their supplies from local companies because it is more efficient and requires less transportation.

Randy Wheeless, who works in corporate communications for Duke Energy, sees potential in a change from tobacco to solar farming. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there have been over 12,000 job losses in the NC Tobacco Industry between 1992 and 2012.

“A lot of areas were hit hard during the recession,” Wheeless states. “Solar is definitely a positive thing for these areas.”

Wilhem agrees, stating that farmers see solar as a better use of their land. It is not taxing on their bodies, brings home a steady income, and doesn’t require maintenance for up to 40 years.

It is this economic benefit that sparked the idea for the nation-wide non-profit, Grid Alternatives, which provides rooftop solar panels to communities that would otherwise not be able to afford access to solar energy. Although the solar installation type varies (farm to roof), the idea is the same. Its solar installation process provides hands-on experience and workforce development to the local community and job-training organizations.

Julian Foley, the communications manager for Grid Alternatives, discusses the financial freedom that the access to solar provides to low-income communities, which bear the brunt of pollution.  “On top of this, low-income families pay up to four times as much as the average consumer on energy due to poorly insulated homes,” she said.  Access to clean-air technology saves them enough to liberate them from many financial burdens.

Wilhelm said that these residential rooftop solar models are not economically ideal in North Carolina, and that rooftop installations are too expensive right now. Rather, small-scale utility solar farms are the most beneficial in North Carolina because they are faster and cheaper to build.

This difference in opinion about whether residential rooftop installations are financially beneficial was discussed in a recently release report titled “How Much Do Local Regulations Matter.” The report found that solar panel pricing varies based on local permitting and other regulations.

The price of building

Recently released reports from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have determined that the price of solar panel installations is decreasing rapidly. Specifically, the price of electricity sold to utilities by solar farms has fallen from $200/MWh in 2007 to $50/Mwhr today. This means that it is becoming more economical for energy companies like Duke Energy to turn to solar as an energy source.

On top of this, the price to install solar panels has also fallen. Between 2012 and 2013 the price dropped about 15%, according to the Berkeley report. This means a lot for solar companies, who can now pay less to provide more solar energy to utility companies.

But for solar farms in rural North Carolina there is a different price to bear: crime.  With unemployment rates up to 40%, some local residents have been convicted of breaking into solar farms to remove the expensive copper materials from the machinery.

Additionally, there is the cost of educating local residents on the topic of solar energy. Many residents express concerns for their health under the misconception that the solar farm releases toxic substances. Wilhelm said that there is no evidence linking health hazards and solar energy.

Politics and money: the role of legislation

Brian Lips is the Energy Policy Project Coordinator at the NC Clean Energy Technology Center.  He found a common misconception to be that solar energy is over-subsidized by the government. “People forget that energy in general is very subsidized in the US,” he claims. “The subsidies for renewable actually pale in comparison to fossil fuels.”

In fact, Lips believes that legislation is not always friendly to maximizing the economic benefits, but that it has improved. “We have a state tax credit that dates back to the Carter administration, but it was underutilized until about three decades ago” he said. Solar farms also provide a big increase to the tax base of a county, Lips says.

Legislation like the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard supports the influx of solar. With the standard in place, utilities will be required to meet up to 12.5% of their energy needs with renewable sources by 2021.

Some argue that policy is not favorable enough. Wilhelm recounts multiple locations where local zoning regulations required up to $300,000 in tree coverage so the panels would remain obscure. Other industrial plants have not been subjected to these regulations.

Wilhelm credits these regulations to the notion that politicians want to make sure this disruptive technology doesn’t interfere with the economy or investments.

The future of solar farms in rural NC

North Carolina has recently become a leader in solar energy, specifically the eastern part of the state. If this trend continues, rural North Carolina is only beginning to see the effects of solar energy.

With many projects underway, these economies will be impacted. Those in the business have been quick to argue that the impact is a positive one.

“We still believe we need a diverse energy mix in North Carolina,” Wheeless says. “There’s no reason solar can’t be a part of that mix.” Over the years, North Carolina will have to either modernize or retire their coal-fired plants, since the majority of them were built in the 1940s. And like traditional power plants, solar farms are a welcome addition to any counties tax.

One example is the solar farm in Davie County, NC. Strata Solar reported that over $250,000 was spent in direct expenditures in Davie County for wages, lodging and supplies.  Additionally, the property tax base of Davie County increased by approximately $15 million.

Wilhelm says that as solar is actually out-competing coal in affordability.

“I’m not a tree-hugger,” he said. “I’m a business guy.”  Solar energy could prove that it is possible to achieve both a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

It is evident that harvesting the sun means a lot for the economy. As I stand on the fence, I think that the farm itself doesn’t seem all that special. The cows seem unbothered by the presence of these large glass sheets. On top of this, not a single human has passed by since I arrived.

As I step down off the fence I realize I’ve somehow become covered in mud. Solar farms may provide a different commodity than the old tobacco farm, but the farm itself is pretty much the same.

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