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Inside the Solar Farm Debate

The economics of solar

Although the Shelby City Council voted against the solar farm on Beaver Dam Church Road, they have approved others in the city and the Cleveland County Board of Adjustments has approved several solar farms throughout the county.

Duke Energy currently purchases power from seven solar farms in Cleveland County. The county provides Duke with 21.6 megawatts of the nearly 550 megawatts they collect from solar facilities across North Carolina.

According to Randy Wheeless, Director of Communications at Duke Energy, the price of solar is still more than traditional forms of energy. Wheeless said the cost of solar has gone down in the past few years, which has made solar a more economically sensible investment.

“ Right now the average customer is playing 40 cents extra a month for us to buy all this renewable and build all this renewable energy for the plants. We’ve managed to do it in a cost effective way,” Wheeless said.

The North Carolina General Assembly has made a push towards solar through legislation in the past 10 years. In 2007, the state passed a bill to mandate Duke Energy to get 12.5 percent of retail sales through renewable energy or energy efficiency by 2021.

There is currently a bill in both the House and Senate to extend tax credits to those who invest in solar technologies. Betsy McCorkle, director of government affairs for the NC Sustainable Energy Association, said those tax credits have helped development across the state.

“So far we’ve seen (the credit) be an incredible economic development tool. The economic impact of renewable energy in the state to date is $4.6 billion,” McCorkle said.

Of that total impact, McCorkle said $2.6 billion was made in direct investment, or money spent to develop solar projects across North Carolina.

Legislation in North Carolina has helped encourage businesses to come to the state as well. Schletter, a German-based manufacturer of solar mounting systems, opened its United States headquarters in Shelby in 2013.

“The thing about being here in North Carolina is this is a great place for our business,” Peter DeNapoli, Chief Commercial Officers at Schletter, said. “First, the workforce is great. Then, there is a commitment by the state to install solar.”

Shelby and Cleveland County: The perception of solar

As cases dealing with permits for solar farms make their way through Shelby City Council and the Cleveland County Board of Adjustments, the issue often boils down to the look of solar farms.

During the hearing on the permit for the Beaver Dam Church Road solar farm, Dennis Stitzel, developer and resident of Pebble Creek, was one of many who were against solar farms in residential areas.

”I’m not against solar energy or solar plants or any form of innovative technology, but the proposed location for the solar plant is wrong fit for the community and will not benefit the businesses or residents of Shelby,” Stitzel said at a September meeting.

DeNapoli said he has noticed that the perception of solar farms often varies in different areas of the country.

“There’s nothing, in my opinion, ugly about a solar array,” DeNapoli said. “In fact, it really demonstrates the community’s investment and involvement in renewables. It’s a commitment to say ‘yes, we’re stepping up and we like solar.’”

While neighbors have expressed their disinterest in having solar farms near their homes, many who spoke against them have said they are not opposed to solar farms in general. That falls in line with the growth in acceptance of solar energy.

A 2014 survey of North Carolina voters showed that 90% of voters support using solar power to meet growing needs for energy.

Francis Shiriwastaw, of Sun-Power Systems, Inc., expressed interest in working with neighbors while developing a solar farm on Carpenter Grove Church Road at a Cleveland County Board of Adjustments meeting.

“We have a lot of flexibility in making adjustments,” Shiriwastaw said. “It is highly possible that we are going to make more changes to the layout so we can really and truly be good neighbors to the people in the area.”

Lori Lawrence, landowner on Carpenter Grove Church Road, spoke about her decision to sell her land for use as a solar farm. After acquiring the land from her late grandparents, she felt a solar farm would be the best use.

“I knew as far as Pop and Nan were concerned and where I was concerned, the solar farm would be the best thing. The land would be working for someone and that’s what they were all about, working for the people,” Lawrence said.

The future of solar

Nicholas Wiebelhaus, Schletter’s East Coast General Manager, said he hopes to see a push to change any negative perception people have about solar farms in the county.

“It’s gap that needs to be bridged. It’s our responsibility here, but it’s also the city leaders’ responsibility to understand that and push that as well. They should be points of pride to them and they should push to bring these things to their communities,” Wiebelhaus said.

According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, North Carolina finished in second place for new solar project installations in the country in 2014. Duke Energy is currently looking to develop solar facilities throughout Cleveland County in the future.

“On our books, we have 22 additional projects pending in the county. Those are 22 projects that have come to our attention that may or may not be built,” Wheeless said.

Wheeless said there will always be a need for different types of energy generation, and he believes solar will continue to be a growing part of that mix .

“Right now (solar is) still less than one percent of the energy in North Carolina, so it has a lot of room to grow. It will take a while to build the new facilities but I see it growing,” Wheeless said. “It may still be in the single digits a decade from now, but I think the trend is that you’re going to see more of these solar farm and more building and construction.”

Casey White,; 704-669-3339; Twitter @CWhite_Star.