The Northampton Board of Supervisors tabled a Special Use Permit that would have destroyed 130 acres of prime agricultural lands along Cherrydale Drive. Hecate Energy had plans to build a massive solar farm on this parcel. Despite lukewarm assurances from the company that it would increase the tax base as well as create a few temporary jobs, the BoS, as well as most of the public, was not buying what they were selling. The tradeoff, giving up a big chunk of productive farmland, as well as a pound of our agricultural heritage, seemed too high a price tag.
Supervisor Hogg, noted that the land was also rich in Native American history, and he suggested that the county make use of local knowledge before moving too far forward. He was also concerned about how to handle property tax situation, how does this benefit county tax wise. Hogg said he asked Commissioner of Revenue, but at the present time, she could not assess it properly; currently it is zoned as Ag, but once a solar farm is installed, no one seemed sure what else would be involved. “No one knows really much about it? Rowen County North Carolina likes them, most of the solar farms were properties where land was not highly productive, but we all need to eat, and the lights are nice, we all have to eat, there is something to be said for protecting highly productive lands,” Hogg said.
Clifton Collins addressed the Board, “I’m not here to debate the pros and cons, I am here to request that the board reject this permit. It would seem reasonable to me to at least receive an alert about this. There are several homes in close proximity of the project. My house will be less than 100 feet from the solar panel farm. Instead of sitting on my porch viewing beautiful farm land I will be viewing a 6 to 8 foot fence. That is 79,000 solar panels. There is no doubt the value of our homes will decrease dramatically. The heat generated may exceed 400 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Ken Dufty,“They have to be up and running by November because the get a 30% federal tax credit, these people are going to make money, this is not a not for profit, what do we get from it? We lose 150 acres of prime farmland, and we jeopardize a man’s quality of life. This is not going to create a lot of jobs and we are just going to lose a lot in personal property taxes.”
Chairman Spencer Murray, “It is important to let an individual do what he wants with his land as long as it doesn’t harm someone else. Our Comp Plan is very clear…we like agricultural land; we are an agricultural county. In 2009, which I voted for, the goal was to set up a solar energy district. That involves a rezoning. This rezoning would allow us to negotiate many more things, in terms of proffers, or what have you, much more than we have the ability to negotiate now with Hecgate. We will have solar districts where when someone identifies an appropriate piece of property, we will be able to negotiate. To give up 180 acres of good agricultural land; I have been to it, and I wonder how many have gone to the land, Planning commissioners especially. I believe when we are going to make a ruling on somebody’s property, we need to walk the ground. This is a struggle because who can be against harvesting the sun, against affordable renewable energy. I am concerned because we have a hole in our ordinance we need to fill. We need to sit down with this company and see what can be done, so we know what we can do to benefit the citizens of Northampton County.”
Opinion: Solar farms, like the one planned by Hecate seem like hamfisted approaches to harvesting solar energy. In California, large solar farms are being criticized for environmental problems, mainly the destruction of habitat and wildlife migration routes. In Europe, the trend is also to move away from using farmland, and instead use brownfields or landfills. That approach may seem more appropriate for the Eastern Shore. New technological advances in panel mounting and framing systems give landfill operators more options. Juwi,a German company and one of the world’s leading solar PV suppliers, has developed a bespoke design for frame-mounted solar arrays on landfill sites using a telescopic racking system that keeps panels flat and level. Its mounting mechanisms can be applied with minimal impact on the integrity of the underlying engineered cap and without applying undue loading to the landfill system itself. The solution has been successfully deployed on a number of solar farms which have been developed on closed landfill sites in Germany. Another method, is to turn a good bit of existing infrastructure into a farm; that is, every government building would have a solar array on the roof, and every light and phone poll will be fitted with a solar panel. Destroying farmland and open space for the purpose of harvesting solar energy is a dated idea, and just stupid. If the industry to says it needs to do that for process to be feasible, than clearly this technology is not ready for prime time–of course, it is our children who will be left to clean up that mess.