More and more solar farms are popping up in Sampson County, seen as a renewable energy boon that can harvest the sun’s rays and power homes and businesses, all while making money for landowners. The process means covering farmland with panels — one prominent agri-businessman in Sampson doesn’t want that to happen.
The issue was discussed during a recent Sampson Board of Commissioners meeting during a discussion that was both pointed and emotional.
Since October 2012, Sampson County has approved special use requests for nine solar farms in the unincorporated areas of the county. There are no pending applications at this time and the board has not approved or had any requests for solar farms in the City of Clinton. Several towns have discussed ventures in recent months, including Garland, Newton Grove and Roseboro, home of Horne Brothers Construction’s Solar Division.
“To date, there is minimal data of any diminishing property values due to a lack of information because the industry is so new,” Clinton-Sampson Planning director Mary Rose said.
Solar farms are listed as a special use in residential agriculture and commercial zoning districts in Sampson County. The setbacks are similar to other special uses, but there are no fencing or buffer requirements, Rose noted. However, plans are reviewed by the Planning Board on a case-by-base basis and the board may apply additional conditions to lessen impacts on adjoining properties as it sees fit.
Typically, there is a lack of traffic associated with solar farms and noise is also at a minimum, Rose said. She recently went to see Birdseye Renewable Energy’s site on Boykin Bridge Road and found there was a “low-level hum” coming from the panels, but after walking a couple hundred feet away from the property, it could not be heard.
“Some counties have developed additional requirements in excess of what Sampson County has,” Rose pointed out, noting Stanly, Montgomery, Harnett and Edgecombe counties among those that have additional buffer and setback requirements, as well as size parameters, even decommission plans in some cases. “We have not added additional requirements due to the fact they are only coming into Sampson County under special use… and the board can add conditions.”
There are currently nine total solar farms in the unincorporated areas of Sampson, totaling 263 acres. Some of them have not been constructed yet.
“There are a lot of hurdles that these companies have to jump through,” Rose attested.
The operations have to be approved by the Utilities Commission, make sure power companies are willing to buy the power to put on their grid and they have to find property near that grid.
Loss of farmland
That is where Ronnie Jackson, owner of Clinton Truck & Tractor Co. and president of the Sampson County Friends of Agriculture, has an issue. Jackson said he was traveling toward Goldsboro one day about a year and a half ago when he noticed several people driving stakes into the ground for solar panels. The huge field was one he had traveled past for some 40 years.
“I thought it was the prettiest farmland in eastern North Carolina,” Jackson said. “It just went all over me.”
Jackson stopped and took a picture, sending it in an email to every legislator in the N.C. General Assembly whose contact information he could find. “This is your tax money at work,” he wrote.
Rose said no venture larger than 50 acres has been approved in Sampson County (see related box). Jackson said that is in stark contrast to a 200-acre solar farm in Duplin and one about that size being developed in Cumberland County.
“My sole (concern) at that time was the loss of farmland,” he said. “We’re losing some of the most prime farmland we’ve got in some areas. Fortunately, it hasn’t happened as much in Sampson.”
He noted several areas where solar ventures have covered hundreds of acres of farmland, including one in Fayetteville that he said “will grow 220 bushels of corn any day you want to grow it because it’s irrigated.” Now, it has been covered by the largest solar installation east of the Mississippi River, Jackson noted.
“That’s just a personal feeling for me, because I’m in the agriculture business and I respect farmland — they’re not making anymore and a lot is being lost to urban development,” he said. “In eastern North Carolina, we’re fortunate to have what we have, and I hate to see it taken for this kind of venture.”
Jackson cited some experts, including Dr. Herbert M. Eckerlin at N.C. State University, who have touted the benefits of solar power and want it to succeed, but have questioned its long-term sustainability. Some, Eckerlin told the Raleigh News & Observer, suggest that solar is close to competing with conventional energy sources such as natural gas, coal and nuclear.
“But without reliable, cost-effective energy storage, comparing a five-hour energy source with a continuous energy source makes no sense,” he stated, noting that at best solar only provides 5 hours of energy. “As we dream of the advantages of solar, we must also consider how we are going to live during the remaining 19 hours that solar power is not available.”
Eckerlin questioned the cost-effectiveness over time, as others are experiencing rising — not decreasing — costs of solar. Dr. Ron Heiniger, in a letter to the Sampson Independent, stated that solar farming is not a good use of land, would effectively kill any soil productivity and owners of solar ventures could be stuck with costs of decommissioning the operations. Currently, most solar operators are not required to have a decommissioning plan or to post a bond to cover the costs of that.
Jackson echoed those concerns. In some cases, property owners can get eight to 10 times more for the farmland than they can by actually farming, due to tax credits offered to the ventures.
“What is going to happen to these solar panels after 20 years?” Jackson asked. “Some of those are going to be abandoned and I doubt that land will ever be returned to productive farm use because it’s going to cost too much to clean it up.”
‘Market should drive’ use
Chairman Billy Lockamy said he agreed with Jackson’s stance. It might not be a particularly popular opinion among some landowners or even some of his customers though, said Jackson, noting Commissioner Clark Wooten among those who might disagree with him on the matter.
An emotional Wooten addressed the issue, saying he was indeed on the other side of the argument.
“One of the toughest things sitting in this (commissioner) chair, is to look at somebody you admire greatly and find yourself on the other side,” Wooten said, lauding Jackson for his many accomplishments in the community and as a well-known and respected agri-businessman, speaking as his voice shook. “It’s tough to find yourself on the other side of that.”
Wooten said a free enterprise system meant farmers did not have to settle for less money selling those 200 bushels of corn but could utilize their land and get better bang for their bank. Some farmers have touted solar ventures with saving their family farms, allowing them to continue utilizing and optimizing the earth during a down farm economy.
“I believe in capitalism and the market should drive what we do,” Wooten said. “There’s no way I can raise my hand to put more restrictions on the landowner. I’m telling you, and I hope it doesn’t reflect on our friendship, there’s no way I can raise my hand to do that.”
Commissioner Albert Kirby said he understood Jackson and didn’t want farms to leave Sampson County either, but balked at any alternative that would restrict landowners. Jackson agreed it was a tough argument to make to another landowner, but a personal one.
“This argument is an emotional one, about losing the farmland. It’s not my land. But what happens to those things down the road?” Jackson remarked. “That’s when they become a burden to the county, the taxpayers and everybody else. We need to have our ducks in a row. We need more information than what we’re getting from the solar industry as to what exactly is going to go into getting rid of these things, if and when they are replaced.”
“Solar farms are really not viable long-term,” he continued. “There will be another solution for them before the 20 years is up, I can almost promise you.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.