TARBORO — Edgecombe County’s landscape is changing.
No, the geography is no different than it was 100 years ago, but the visual landscape is changing — from one of timber and crop land to one that adds solar farms to the mix and the acreage continues to grow.
Whether you’re driving along Davistown-Mercer Road near Pinetops, Ellis Road or Alternate U.S. 64 East near Conetoe or N.C. 33 between Leggett and Whitakers, the large, ground-mounted arrays of reflective panels are increasing in number.
The down-and-dirty explanation is that solar panels capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity. Depending on the arrangement negotiated by the operator of the solar farm, the generated power is either sold to public utility companies or delivered to companies specified in the operating agreement.
As an example, Duke Energy’s SunEnergy1, located near Conetoe and at one time the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi River, sells 62.5 percent of the power produced from its 80-megawatt farm to New York-based Corning and the remainder to Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.
As the calls to move from fossil fuels increase, so does the interest in solar farms.
In Edgecombe County, there are currently four producing solar farms identifiable on the county’s GIS — geographic information system — mapping system, which can be found at https://gis.edgecombecountync.gov.
Conetoe’s SunEnergy1 is by far the largest, with 16 parcels of land combined to create the farm that contains more than 375,000 solar panels covering some 800 acres of what once was farmland. The total acreage of the 16 parcels, according to county records obtained under through a public records request.
There is also Community Energy Solar, occupying 112 acres near Conetoe, the 81.05-acre O2 EMC Tolson 1 on Davistown-Mercer Road near Pinetops and the 122.82-acre Leggett Solar on N.C. 33 near Whitakers.
All four of the working farms were approved by commissioners in 2015.
A fifth array of solar panels is located at QVC, on Kingsboro Road on a pair of separate locations.
The first was constucted in 2008 on seven acres while the second, on 11 acres, was opened in 2013. Together, the two solar farms can produce 5.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. QVC says producing this much power from renewable energy equates to reducing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere of 458,766 gallons of gasoline.
But the change from agricultural use to solar creates a number of differences.
First, the income from a solar farm is more consistent than that from crops. There’s no risk of too much or not enough rain having a negative impact on a crop or insects doing significant damage.
In addition to providing a steady income for the property owner, the solar farm also provides a steady stream of tax revenue for the county.
For example, in the special use permit presentation to county commissioners for the 600-acre Edgecombe Solar Farm, it was estimated that the county would generate an estimated $2.5 million in taxes.
Edgecombe Solar will be located north of Alternate U.S. 64 and west of the Kingsboro Business Park and will cost an estimated $100 million while generating 250 construction jobs.
About three miles to the southeast, SunEnergy1 has gotten the go-ahead from the county for a special use permit for up to a 1,400-acre solar farm that is also projected to add significant tax revenue to the county’s coffers.
Broken into three segments along Harts Mill Run Road, Nobles Mill Pond Road and Filmore Road, the SunEnergy1 project will generate between 1,200 and 1,500 jobs over a 24-month construction period and at least 30 permanent full-time jobs once completed, according to company president Kenny Habul.
The solar farm will occupy land that once produced crops and held several stands of timber.
During the hearing for the special use permit, Bill Clark, who owns approximately half of the acreage, testified, “I did my due diligence and spoke to my family and we thought it was a good plan for us. We believe in personal property rights and you are able to do the stuff you want to do with your land. ... If you follow the laws and rules, then you ought to be able to do with your land what you want to do.”
Clark emphasized that it was not an easy decision to make, noting that the project brings no crime with it, no additional demands on schools and public services and doesn’t pollute.
While the argument is made that once the solar farm reaches the end of its life, the panels can be recycled in the landfill, the frames taken apart and the land returned to agricultural use.
But for the 20-to-25 years of energy production, the land is out of production.
While the solar acreage is a drop in the bucket when compared to farmland, it will most likely continue to grow as long as the financial incentives remain significant.
In some states, plants are grown beneath the solar panels in a process called agrivoltaics, although that is not the case in Edgecombe.
Researchers at the University of Arizona have discovered that farming under solar panels can boost food production, water savings and the efficiency of electricity production.
In addition to the benefits to the plants, the researchers found that the agrivoltaics system increased the efficiency of energy production. Solar panels are inherently sensitive to temperature — as they warm, their efficiency drops. Cultivating crops underneath the photovoltaic panels allowed researchers to reduce the temperature of the panels.
While agrivotaics is not currently in the mix in eastern North Carolina, who’s to say it won’t be at some point?
Imagine, if you will, peanuts or sweet potatoes growing under 300,000 or so solar panels.
Until the time that the agrivotaics pitch is made to a property owner, we’ll continue to see more and more solar farms — especially as long as the financial incentives are lucrative and the demand for renewable energy continues to grow.