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Oh, Let the Sun Shine In

Jun 01, 2016 08:30AM ● Published by Jason Huddle

Oh, Let the Sun Shine In

Electricity that is generated by burning fossil fuels that emit dangerous gases and could contribute to global climate change is being addressed in a big way. 

In 2014, Adam Lovelady of UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government penned an overview of our state’s solar energy in Planning and Zoning for Solar in North Carolina. According to the publication, “As of June 2013, North Carolina had 245 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar installations in operation and an additional 1,102 MW planned. North Carolina ranked second in the country, behind only California, for solar PV (photovoltaic) capacity added in 2013.”

While decreasing costs are a factor, state mandates developed in 2007 in the form of the state renewable energy portfolio require “electric utilities derive 6 percent of their retail sales from renewable energy or energy-efficient sources or both by 2015. The standard rises to 10 percent in 2018 and 12.5 percent in 2021,” Lovelady says.

Founded in 2008 and based in Chapel Hill, Strata Solar is the largest solar facility developer in North Carolina and the third largest in the U.S. It has about 100 solar projects currently on the table after recently completing one in Midland.

The Howell Midland Solar Farm – the first of its kind in Cabarrus County – is located off Bethel Avenue Extension. Ira Howell, Carolyn Howell and Anne Seavey have owned the family land for more than 75 years, previously zoned and used for agriculture.

 

Basic Science Lesson

The sun is one of Earth’s most consistent energy sources and man’s ability to harness that – as rudimentary as it was – goes back to the 7th century, B.C. However, especially since 2000, technology has seen solar panels become thinner, more powerful, more efficient and more numerous.

Panels were installed on the International Space Station in 2000; a residential installation in Colorado in 2000 – the largest to be registered with the Department of Energy – generates enough electricity for the 6,000-square-foot home; and Home Depot began selling solar power systems in 2001.

There are two methods to harnessing solar energy. According to solar-thermal.com, “Solar thermal electric energy generation concentrates the light from the sun to create heat, and that heat is used to run a heat engine, which turns a generator to make electricity.”

 On the flip side, photovoltaic (PV) solar energy converts sunlight directly into electricity. Voltage is created when radiant energy (the sun) falls on the boundary of two different semiconductors (PV cells). Photons from the sun are particles of solar energy. When certain wavelengths of photons are absorbed by the two-layered PV cell, they collide with electrons in the metal. That creates an atom – or current – that generates electricity.

A photovoltaic solar panel is about the size of a refrigerator door and contains some 40 PV cells. The maximum height for a solar farm is generally 25 feet, but is at the discretion of the county. Angled to optimally catch the sun’s rays, it makes sense that a large array of panels – a farm – serves to deliver enough electricity to benefit many. It is also the type being utilized on the Howell Midland Solar Farm.

But here’s the kicker. Who’s willing to sign a long-term lease that will see their property covered with rows of glaring metal panels? More than you might think, although there are often dissenting neighbors who look to preserve a rural area or are worried about the negatives of having a solar farm so close to their property.

That was the case in Midland. A meeting was held at Bethel United Methodist Church in March 2015, followed by a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting that April. As concerned as residents – and even the Town of Midland – were with the solar farm plan, if rezoning was approved, it was the right of the landowners to proceed.

The Town of Midland opposed the farm because of its location, wanting projects like it built according to Midland’s Town Plan 2030, in an industrial area. Indeed, solar farms are often constructed on land that is uninhabitable (closed landfills, near wastewater treatment plants, brown-fields, etc.), but times are changing.

Cabarrus County approved conditionally zoning the land and, in August 2015, the County issued Strata Solar a $3.5-million building permit. A 30-year lease was signed for 95.5 acres, but Strata has built on only 32 acres, installing 23,000 ground-mounted PV panels. Five megawatts are being generated each year, which power about 830 homes. Strata is selling the electricity, which runs through a local substation, to Duke Energy.

A conditional zoning means that the project “does not injure neighboring property values, does not harm public health and safety, is in harmony with the area and conforms with adopted plans,” according to Lovelady.

Maggie Mae Armstrong is Strata Solar’s public relations & marketing manager. “Strata often works closely with utilities, in this case with Duke. Sometimes landowners come directly to us to pursue this opportunity,” she says.

She was not forthcoming about how Strata’s agreement with the Howells came to pass, however.

While the benefits of solar energy are obvious, there are some points to be considered about ground-mounted panels. According to pagerpower.com, “Panel reflection is possibly the most common safety concern raised for solar developments, and is commonly referred to as ‘glint and glare’ concerns. One-hundred percent absorption is not achieved and some level of solar reflection will always occur.”

In Midland, Strata has addressed this with buffers – the panels are at least 130 feet from the nearest structure. In addition, trees at least 16 feet tall are to be planted. “We do a lot from an aesthetic standpoint, do planting around it. We have an entire team to manage vegetation, put in native plants, etc.,” Armstrong says.

Other concerns might be a humming or whirring sound from a solar inverter – the structure that converts the solar panel current into one that’s fed into a commercial electric grid – and electromagnetic interference. Positioning the facility far enough away from buildings should alleviate these problems.

“An inverter can be as small as a paperback book or as large as a compact car, depending on the system size and design,” Lovelady says. “Smaller inverters can be mounted on poles and scattered throughout the solar farm, or several large, pad-mounted inverters may be used, consolidating the equipment to a few locations.”

On the plus side, solar farms release no carbon emissions, are low-maintenance and offer jobs. “It’s exciting from a community standpoint, meaning jobs (during construction). We bring in a lot in terms of workforce development,” Armstrong says. “Construction takes four months, generally, but even after that our Operations & Maintenance team actually continues to operate and maintain it, bringing full-time jobs for those in the field.”

In this case, that’s being handled by Solar Management Services, also out of Chapel Hill.

For the Howell family, the farm was an opportunity for consistent, long-term income. “You have to ask, ‘Is that right for me? Is that good for me,’ ” Armstrong explains. “This allows them to keep that land in their family, look at different economic opportunities and maintain ownership while benefitting from solar installation.”

More cities and towns are adopting their own local plans with solar energy in mind. “Addressing solar energy production can support common planning goals, including increased use of local and renewable energy sources, sustainable building practices, efficient investment of public dollars and local economic development,” Lovelady says.

But what happens at the end of a solar panel’s 20- to 30-year lifespan, as well as adjacent property values? According to Lovelady, most of a panel is recyclable; however, the technology is so new that most panels are still in operation.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIS) says, “End-of-life disposal of solar products in the U.S. is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and state policies that govern waste. To be governed by RCRA, panels must be classified as hazardous waste. To be classified as hazardous, panels must fail to pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure test (TCLP test). Most panels pass the TCLP test, and thus are classified as non-hazardous and are not regulated.

“Many SEIA members recognize the importance of an entirely sustainable product lifecycle and adhere to ISO 1400 and ISO 2600 management standards, as well as implementing collection and recycling programs,” they add. “Additionally, many solar companies are addressing recycling concerns not only in the U.S., but abroad through membership in PV Cycle, a European-based voluntary agreement, which facilitates collection and recycling of modules at end-of-life.”

In Lovelady’s publication, he says, “Iredell County requires a decommissioning plan that identifies the responsible party, estimates costs of decommissioning and states the method of ensuring funds will be available. Many communities leave it to property owners and solar developers to make private arrangements for financing decommissioning.”

With regard to property values, since comparables are scarce, appraisers may look at how the solar farm impacts the surrounding land in appearance, odor, noise, level of traffic and the existence of hazardous materials. If they find that these factors don’t negatively affect neighboring land, they won’t assess that the value has decreased. This is subjective among appraisers, however.

Solar technology – and on a grand scale – will inevitably become more commonplace as the human race searches for alternative energies that reduce its carbon footprint. Hopefully, advancements in related science and construction will ultimately assuage the fears of those who will see a solar farm built in their community.

In the meantime, no one disputes the benefits of clean, renewable energy that won’t contribute to global climate change. But those searching to hang on to their rural roots and traditional land use continue to question the expansiveness of these projects so close to home.

Article By: Kim Cassell

Photos by: Michael A. Anderson Photography

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