The Moore County Planning Board has, in effect, banned industrial-scale solar farms in Moore County.
The action came during the Board's Thursday, May 9 regular meeting, as members considered a set of text amendments prepared by the Planning Department, that would have made "solar collector facility" a conditional use in a number of zoning districts. After considerable debate, the Board concluded the concerns outweighed the benefits.
At least three landowners have already taken the first steps to receive state approval for building solar farms in the County.
A viable business?
Planning Board Members questioned whether solar farms were viable as a business and worried that they are dependent on large government subsidies. They also worried that evolving technology would quickly date existing structures, making them obsolete. And they feared that, once a solar farm was no longer in use, the landowner would not properly dismantle it and that it would become an eyesore.
At the Board's request, the Moore County Planning Department has been conducting research on solar farms since October of last year. Several members of the board visited the Strata Solar Farm in Raeford. During the Board's April meeting, a question and answer session was held with a representative from Argand Energy Solutions, LLC. At that time, Planner Jeremy Sparrow was asked to edit and write text amendments to present at the May meeting for Board consideration.
Sparrow gave an in-depth presentation of the proposed text amendments, which tightly covered all bases -- from setbacks, proximity to existing three-phase electrical, height of fencing, and emergency access to the type of non-reflective coating permissible. Throughout the presentation, the Board commented on and discussed the proposed ordinances.
Concerns about decommissioning
Member Tom McGinnis asked why performance bonds had not been included the ordinance rewrite. “If it was decommissioned and not a viable enterprise anymore, maybe the owners will not be able to put money up for decommissioning it,” McGinnis said.
“When I am traveling out in the Midwest, I can show you miles and miles of wind farms that are unproductive,” Member Rodney Pickler said. “They are not worth the money to update. All this renewable stuff is like a computer and obsolete in no time.”
“Seeing those windmill farms, when one breaks down, they abandon them and leave them there," Pickler continued. "I have an article about a company in Colorado. The company was recipient of $400 million loan. They received $70 million and it cost the taxpayers $40 to 60 million. The company is now abandoned and bankrupt, and the state is wondering how they will dispose of it.”
Questioning whether solar energy sounded too good to be true, member Johnny Harris asked: “If it makes that much power, then why won't the power company [i.e., Duke Power or Progress Energy] do it?”
“I don’t care about roof panels, it is these ground solar farms that worry me. If we get it wrong then it will be wrong for a long time,” Pickler said.
During both the April and May meeting, public input was welcomed.
Neighbors voice concerns
At least three solar farms have been proposed for the County. Several residents neighboring the proposed installation on NC Highway 211 near Samarkand asked questions and voiced concerns. Both Todd Brown and his mother Ruby Brown worried about the loss of fertile agriculture land.
“We are already doing a lot of solar farming in Moore County,” Todd Brown said. “We farm grass and turn it into beef. I am sure a lot of people are already solar farmers. What we are going to do here is cover existing agricultural land.”
“There should be some reasonable attempt to protect the view shed," Brown continued. "Is it possible to require planting low shrubs and a deeper set back from the road to protect the rural nature?”
“I also totally agree with cleanup," he added, echoing the concerns expressed by Board members. "There should be some funds to make sure it is cleaned up in the end. The cleanup should ensure that underground power line is removed, the garbage removed, and the land restored to its original state. I think solar panels are fine, but we also need to protect the rural nature. We have a lot of abandoned factories and mill sites that might also be a viable option for this.”
“I am very also concerned about the amount of land that is being eaten up by these solar panels,” Ruby Brown said. “We are losing very good agriculture land. These farms are not really doing a lot for the economy. We need sustainable jobs. The company brings in its own employees to set the panels up. I am glad they use expert people to do it, but it wouldn’t really mean anything to the local economy -- which we really need.”
“I am afraid that these solar farms may not be sustainable on their own," she continued. "How long it is going to last and be valid? I don’t know what kind of teeth you have in laws or how you enforce them. If you don’t take care of your land, then you won't have a country for very long.”
“I have a farm right beside it and am working land downhill from it," Michael Ritter said of one of the installations. "There are wet springs that come right through my property. Would chemicals in these solar panels leach into the ground? We got good water. If you mess up your water, you got nothing.”
Not now. Maybe later.
“I am a very staunch supporter of pushing the technological envelope and seeking betterment through technology," Chairman Robert Hayter said. "It is fairly self-evident, if it wasn’t for subsidies being provided, then there would not be an industry, because they have yet to prove themselves independent.”
As technology improves the board will revisit zoning for solar farms, he added. “When the time comes for that technology to be market ready we will want to have these conversations.”
Les Murray questioned whether rooftop residential solar panels were inadvertently being prohibited in the vote. Hayter agreed that the vote was only in reference to industrial solar farms, not residential installations.
After turning down the proposed amendments that would have allowed solar farms, the Board recessed and came back for an in-depth and lengthy review of the county’s sign regulations.