Solar farms spark debate

By: By Chase Jordan -

As solar farms continue to grow throughout North Carolina, some wonder if they are harmful to the land.

According to a recent article published in the Carolina Journal, a few N.C. State researchers believe they’re being silenced by college and solar supporters for voicing their concerns about the solar industry and effects on farmland.

Ron Heiniger of the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth stated that he had his job threatened. He said setting utility-scale solar projects could harm the fragile ecosystem and gave warning about soil erosion, leaching contaminants and ruining soil for growth in the future. Herb Eckerlin, a N.C. State professor emeritus of the College of Engineering, said he was silenced as well.

Ronnie Jackson, president of the Sampson County Friends of Agriculture, also expressed some of the same concerns when it comes to farming.

“There’s a lot of issues at play with this thing,” Jackson told The Sampson Independent. “That’s the point where they were coming from. People need to be a lot more informed about it.”

Jackson said he appeared on a panel with Eckerlin to speak with legislators on the matter.

“His argument is that heavy use of solar power, like the way they’re doing it, where they take a whole farm and fill it with solar panels, is not the most optimal use of solar power,” Jackson said. “You still have to have parallel generating capacity because at night it goes away.”

He believes that landowners have the right to lease their property to whoever they want.

“I agree with that 100 percent,” Jackson said. “I’m not trying to interfere with anybody’s right to do what they want to with their land.”

But along with others, he expressed that using taxpayers money is a misguided use of funds. Jackson also brought up companies receiving tax credits for their involvement with solar energy.

“These are the people getting the tax credits,” he said. “We’re just making them rich with our tax money. That’s basically what’s going on.”

While referring to the article, Jackson noted that Eckerlin wants the pros and cons known, so government officials and residents can make decisions on the matter.

“They started under the guise that they weren’t going to take prime farmland,” he said about developers. “But now they take the best farmland. They go where it’s easier to build the farms and they don’t want a lot of work putting these things up and they windup taking the very best farmland.”

Jackson used the nearby communities as an example of why some are concerned about the matter.

“You can go to Warsaw and you can see about 500 acres of them in some of the finest farmland in Duplin County,” he said. “The idea that they use marginal land is absolutely not true, no matter what they say. And they’ll tell you that they do that and that’s not what they do.”

Environmental and weather related factors were also questioned by Jackson. One of the issues involves disposal.

“If a storm comes through and destroys all of those panels, what are you going to do with them? There’s some materials in there I don’t think you can put in a landfill at this point and time,” Jackson said.

Jackson said Sampson County does not have as many solar farms as nearby Duplin Couny, but cautioned that the land will be hard to reclaim as farmland, if the solar farm was to leave because of aging technology.

“The cleanup process is going to be relatively expensive,” he said. “My theory is that the citizens, county and the state should be really assured that some type of cleanup process is in place when those farms are put there. There should be a mechanism to make sure that if they’re ever decommissioned that they’ll be cleaned up and it wont be at taxpayers expense.”

Solar production is not expected to stop anytime soon. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper recently signed legislation supporting the solar industry through House Bill 589. He also signed Executive Order No. 11, which promotes wind energy.

In a news release, he stated that a strong renewable energy industry is good for the environment and the the economy.

“This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry,” Cooper stated referring to House Bill 589. “I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained.”

With Executive Order No. 11, the purpose is to “mitigate the effects of the moratorium.” It directs the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to continue recruiting wind energy investments. Cooper also stated that he would like to move forward with the behind-the-scenes work involved with bringing wind energy projects online, including reviewing permits and conducting pre-application review for prospective sites.

“I want wind energy facilities to come online quickly when this moratorium expires so our economy and our environment can continue to benefit,” Cooper stated.

A solar farm operated by Strata Solar is one of several in Sampson County.
(Chase Jordan | Sampson Independent) solar farm operated by Strata Solar is one of several in Sampson County.
(Chase Jordan | Sampson Independent)

Strata Solar runs a solar farm right outside of Roseboro.
(Chase Jordan | Sampson Independent) Solar runs a solar farm right outside of Roseboro.
(Chase Jordan | Sampson Independent)
Local agriculture leaders respond to conflict

By Chase Jordan