There are an array of farms in Sampson County, but now a new kind is being introduced with the approval of a zoning ordinance amendment that will pave the way for a 2 megawatt solar farm that will produce electricity for a big utility company, and revenue for landowners and the county at the same time.
The Sampson County Board of Commissioners recently approved a request to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to include solar farm as a special use in the RA-Residential Agriculture and C-Commercial districts. Clinton-Sampson planning director Mary Rose said, as a special use, any request to establish a solar farm would require a site-specific plan and the board would be able to review the proposal and place any additional conditions on it.
That is exactly what Kent Trowbridge presented to commissioners, laying out plans for a local solar farm being pursued by his company, Solbridge Energy LLC. That farm would be called Gainey Solar LLC, which is seeking to construct a 2 megawatt AC (alternating current) ground mount solar installation on Governor Moore Road, Clinton.
Solbridge Energy LLC, founded by Trowbridge in April 2009, is a solar energy developer with the goal to provide solar electricity to utilities, municipalities and select commercial enterprises under long-term power purchase agreements. Solbridge seeks to finance, install, own and operate distributed generating facilities, delivering solar energy at or near the site of consumption. It is focused mainly on the development of 250 kilowatt to 10 megawatt facilities in the eastern United States.
One of those projects would be Gainey Solar LLC. The zoning amendment request by Trowbridge, the managing partner of Solbridge, was previously unanimously approved by the Planning Board.
“One megawatt takes about 5 acres of land,” said Trowbridge, “and one megawatt of energy represents about 100 households. Right now, Solbridge has ground leases in place with two different Sampson County residents. The first one that we’re looking at is Gainey Solar on Governor Moore Road.”
Trowbridge explained the process. Once the solar panels are set up, the sunlight hits the panel as direct current, activating electrons that cause the electricity. It runs through wires to an inverter, where it is flipped from direct current to alternating current.
“It has to do that because the utilities move their power around in alternating current,” Trowbridge said. “Solbridge will be those ground mounts. We’ll be selling all the electricity into the grid. We’ll be entering into long-term power purchase agreements with, in this case, Progress Energy. All the energy that is created by the solar farm will be fed directly into the grid.”
Trowbridge said the way Progress Energy deals with power purchase agreements is through a Cogeneration and Small Power Producer Schedule, a CSP (Concentrated Solar Panel) 27. Once a company receives a N.C. Utilities Commission filing approval and an interconnection agreement with Progress Energy, Progress will enter into a CSP 27. “Once I get those two pieces of paper, which I’m in the process of getting, then Progress will sign,” he said. “They have to sign.”
The key players in the solar energy production process include the landowner; the off-taker for the electricity (Progress Energy); engineering procurement construction (EPC), those who design the system; investors; and the developer (Solbridge Energy).
As part of the CSP 27, a landowner can choose a 5, 10 or 15-year term to have solar panels on their property. Solbridge will enter into long-term fixed lease with landowners, who have a fully-leased piece of property for the next 15 years. At the end of the term, the solar installation can be disassembled and the land returned to its original state. “We match up with the 15-year term. We want to go out as far as possible,” Trowbridge said.
Solar technologies include thin film, photovoltaic and concentrated solar, which itself can be photovoltaic (producing electricity) or solar thermal (producing hot water). Residential and commercial applications are often rooftop panels. Solbridge deals in ground mounts, which Trowbridge said would mean no emissions, noise, ground water contamination, vibrations or traffic.
“We put together all these pieces so we can build this as efficiently and economically as possible,” said Trowbridge. “Once the construction period is done, which takes roughly two months, there’s no traffic. It’s fixed tilt, no moving parts. So it just operates quietly without any disturbance. It doesn’t burden any of the community’s services once built.”
There is voltage, so security fences would be erected around the property. Those pieces of property with major power lines adjacent to them are the most efficient, allowing for a better hook-up to existing utilities.
Leading up to Trowbridge’s presentation, Rose, planner Lyle Moore and county manager Ed Causey visited a solar farm in Bunn, located over roughly 10 acres near the Franklin County Correctional Institute.
“It is my job to investigate, when we go out, what the negative effects or impacts could be to adjoining property owners,” Rose said. “After visiting the site, I did not witness anything that could be construed as having any sound issues and did not witness anything visually. We became very educated as to what a solar farm was, but I don’t believe we spent very much time there because of our lack of concern with any negative impacts it might provide.”
She called the Franklin site “an interesting mixed use,” where the entire farm is fenced and sheep will be used to maintain the grass. Rose said the opportunity could be provided to commissioners to see the site, or a similar farm. Rose said there was little activity aside from the frames and solar panels. Trowbridge said local solar farms would be set up the same way.
“There will be sheep on the property, which will help maintain the level of the grass so that it doesn’t impede the solar panels,” he said. He said those panels are typically around 8 feet high, with no moving parts and elevated off the ground.
“Solbridge wants to do as little land disturbance as possible,” said Trowbridge. “If we could do none, we would be very happy.”
In addition to being providing little disturbance or negative environmental impacts, the positives would include revenue for landowners and tax base for the county, Trowbridge noted. He estimated that a 2.3 megawatt facility, as the Gainey solar farm near Clinton would be, would bring a taxable investment of $5 million in equipment.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.