02/20/13 — Solar farms take look at Duplin County, Mount Olive

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Solar farms take look at Duplin County, Mount Olive

By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on February 20, 2013 1:46 PM

As clean energy looks to become a major contributor to the nation's power grid, North Carolina, and more specifically, Duplin County, is drawing millions of investment dollars in creating new solar farms.

That includes a $250 million solar farm project, the largest such project in North Carolina, looking to settle on Duplin County farmland.

The proposed 400-acre installation would generate 100 DC megawatts of energy during peak producing times, enough to power 11,500 homes annually. The project's size rivals some of the largest solar farms in the eastern United States.

Duplin County Planner Randall Tyndall counts 13 other proposed solar farms. One of those solar farms has been constructed.

Solar farms have been a hot topic for local governments as they prepare for an influx of companies looking at local land. So far, the political landscape for solar farms has been good.

North Carolina is one of the top states for solar farm growth as it provides state tax incentives of 35 percent of the cost of construction up to $2.5 million per corporate project.

The state has also been pushing growth of clean energy industries by requiring that electricity companies obtain at least one-eighth of their product from clean energy companies by 2021. That push has utility companies quickly looking to solar farm developers who have taken the lead in establishing solar farms around the local area.

The literal landscape is good, too. Local land tends to be cheap, and most of it is cleared and flat.

"It's perfect for adapting into solar installations," said Blair Schoof, a Strata Solar spokesman.

Strata Solar, a solar farm company based in Chapel Hill, is behind the 400-acre mega solar farm that the company hopes to establish within five miles of Warsaw on the town's western side.

In the past year, Strata Solar has announced 12 new solar farms and has created 450 jobs in rural North Carolina. It plans to construct 25 new solar farms in 2013.

That project is currently awaiting approval by the state Utilities Commission, and a few investors still need to pledge their funds.

If everything goes smoothly, construction for the farm would begin at the end of 2013 and last for about a year. The project would involve 400 workers to complete the construction of 415,000 fixed photovoltaic arrays.

Strata Solar tries to hire local people when looking at its solar farm projects. Recently, the company hired 120 workers in eastern North Carolina.

The solar farm wouldn't require daily maintenance, but a team of workers that cover a number of solar farms is set up to respond to any equipment failures at an installation.

Duke's Progress Energy is under negotiation to buy the energy generated by the new solar form, and the project would require a new substation built nearby to regulate the size of the project's output.

"The addition of a solar farm of this magnitude solidifies North Carolina as a player in the national solar landscape," Strata Solar CEO Markus Wilhelm said in a press release.

The structure's size would be equal to one-fifth of the size of Warsaw.

"It's a big farm for the East Coast, but it's teeny compared to some of the big ones in the Southwest," Schoof said.

Mount Olive also is a hot site for solar farm investors. Birdseye Renewable Energies is currently building a 6.4 MW farm on Bert Martin Road. Another proposed solar farm on the corner of Harrell's Hill Road and N.C. 55 is still in discussion stages by Solbridge Energy, LLC.

Finally, a 20 MW installation, a larger solar farm for east North Carolina, is currently in development by Strata Solar close to Mount Olive.

"It's following very closely on the heels of (the Bert Martin Road solar farm). If it makes it on the calendar then there's a good chance that it will get done. It's definitely on the calendar," Schoof said.

Three other solar farms are looking at other land in Wayne County's jurisdiction.

Not all discussions on solar farms have been bright and sunny. Some say that solar farms use a large amount of land that could be used for more productive reasons, such as farming, or in Mount Olive's case, industrial development.

Solar farms also need low maintenance, meaning less jobs compared to a typical business.

Finally, solar farms and clean energies need state and federal subsidies as the growing technology requires research and development before the industry becomes financially stable without subsidies, a state that Strata Solar is preparing for by building larger installations.

Solar proponents counter that most solar farms look at farmland that is typically not very productive, and that many American industries -- financial, agricultural and oil companies -- are subsidized.