Caswell solar farm to power 700 homes
Think Caswell County seems like an unlikely place to find a solar farm generating enough power to provide energy to nearly 700 homes?
Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar constructed a solar farm last year on 40 acres off N.C. 62 near Blanch. The farm was completed in December and began operating in February. It will produce 9,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually.
Strata Solar Senior Vice President of Asset Management John Morrison said the company has started constructing another solar farm near Efland this month, which is scheduled to be completed in October. It takes the company about 12 weeks to build a solar farm.
Morrison said the company doesn’t have any immediate plans to construct a solar farm in Alamance County, but solar farms are planned for construction in Siler City and Randleman in 2015. Each site requires 35 to 40 acres and costs $10 million to $20 million to construct.
The company has constructed solar farms across the state and currently has 12 solar farm construction projects underway. Morrison said a job fair in January 2013 at Alamance Community College allowed Strata Solar to hire workers to construct another solar farm in Orange County.
Work crews are hired and trained to construct solar farms in regional clusters, allowing them to connect to a grid. Morrison said once the farms are completed, they require minimal maintenance. One solar farm generates enough electricity to supply energy for 600 to 700 homes. The power generated at the solar farm in Caswell County is sold to Duke Energy.
Strata Solar leases the land it used to build the farms from the landowners. Morrison said the lease agreements are on average for 15 years. The company has constructed 52 percent of the solar farms in the state.
“The solar farms provide clean energy with no pollution,” Morrison said.
OVERALL, NORTH CAROLINA’S solar industry continues to grow. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, about 137 solar companies are at work throughout the value chain in North Carolina, employing 3,100 workers.
In 2013, North Carolina installed 335 MW of solar electric capacity, ranking it third nationally. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the 592 MW of solar energy currently installed in North Carolina ranks the state fourth nationally in installed capacity. There is enough solar energy installed in the state to power 64,500 homes.
In 2013, $787 million was invested in North Carolina to install solar for home, business and utility use. This represented a 156 percent increase over the previous year.
The price to install solar energy systems in homes and commercial businesses has dropped by 8 percent this year as compared to last year, according to Solar Energy Industries Association.
Betsy McCorkle, Director of Government Affairs for the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, said the five counties that have had the most growth as of April in solar energy investments are Robeson at $151 million; Davidson, $131 million; Catawba, $129 million; Duplin, $88 million; and Wake, $73 million.
“The future is very bright,” McCorkle said. “North Carolina has become a hub for the solar industry that exports expertise and services to neighboring states. The only thing that can hold back these investments in clean energy is if the state goes backwards on its energy policy. Right now, investors know their clean energy dollars are welcome here. We want to make sure it stays that way.”
MCCORKLE SAID ALAMANCE County does not have a zoning ordinance specific to solar land use, but rather incorporates alternate energy generating facilities into its Heavy Industrial Development Ordinance. There is no specification in Alamance County on system size or land use, but solar is a qualifying facility.
“Alamance County can benefit from these investments by having ordinances that are welcoming for developers and at the same time addressing possible concerns of community members,” McCorkle said.
McCorkle said the solar industry’s biggest threat is uncertainty.
“They need a signal from policymakers that their investments are welcome here,” she said. “If North Carolina chooses to scale back policies that are working and putting North Carolina in the top three for solar, we will watch our neighboring and competing states take over that position and take our jobs and investments with them.”
Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce President Mac Williams said his office hasn’t been contacted directly by solar farm companies. Williams said a landowner in the county recently expressed to him that he was interested in using his land for a solar farm.
Williams said solar farms “can’t just be put anywhere.” Several factors on location include proximity to ground transmission lines and access to the overall solar grid.