PENDER COUNTY — A solar company that wanted to plant 2,360 acres of panels in Pender County timberland was sent packing Monday.
A wide-ranging public hearing ended in an unanimous vote by county commissioners to reject a special-use permit for the development. Commissioners took issue with the size of the project, its location in the midst of a large section of land used for agriculture, and the impact it could have on flooding and water supply if leaching was an issue.
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The project would have involved Coastal Pine Solar, subsidiary of California-based Birch Creek, buying up acreage from the middle of a 6,587-acre wooded parcel north of Piney Woods Road and east of U.S. 421.
It was proposed on land in the county’s rural agricultural classification, with farming use “highly encouraged.” Right now, the land is owned by Evergreen Timber Co. and used for commercial timber management.
If approved, the company would have spent nearly $300 million clearing the land and pneumatically driving enough solar panels into the ground to power 50,000 homes on Duke Energy’s grid, about 200 megawatts worth.
“I think we should make the distinction here that this is not a small acreage project,” Pender County Commissioner Jackie Newton pointed out. Newton also lives adjacent to the property. “This is a utility-sized project that is proposed by a current non-land owner.”
Pender Planning Director Travis Henley told PCD the solar farm was easily the largest that has landed on his desk. Solar projects are permitted by right in the county’s two industrial districts, but Henley said rural agricultural land is the only place with parcels large enough to place projects of this scale.
“Whether it’s two, 25 or 2,400 acres, if it’s in [rural agriculture] it requires a special use permit,” Henley said.
Duke draws power from eight solar facilities in Pender currently. Six are in the 5 megawatt range and two are larger. The Crooked Run solar development produces 70 megawatts and Innovative Solar 67 produces 34.
Before 2017, 5 megawatt farms on about 30 acres of land were the norm, but substantial enterprises are becoming the standard because the state’s largest utility company is looking for more efficient projects.
“People say, why is it so large?” said Thomas Terrell, a lawyer from Greensboro firm Fox Rothschild representing Coastal Pine Solar. “The answer is Duke Energy.”
Terrell recounted the N.C. General Assembly passed a law enabling Duke to use a competitive bidding process in 2017 to decide which projects it would purchase solar electricity from. Prior to the law, if someone built a 5 megawatt farm, Duke had to pay for the power it generated at a rate Duke spokesperson Randy Wheeless said was “pretty attractive.”
“That’s why you saw so many of them,” he told PCD.
Roughly 7.5% of Duke’s grid is solar and it buys about 10 times more than it owns from third parties, Wheeless said. There are over 700 solar farms in North Carolina, with more than 40 owned by Duke; however, the company has plans to build 55% of its own solar infrastructure in the future.
Wheeless pulled information on some projects that have won bids and found 20, 30 and 40 megawatt farms across the state. Five megawatt farms are becoming a thing of the past and the reason is the economy of scale.
“To build 5 megawatts, to get the labor, to get the parts, to get the racking, the panels, you’re just as well building a bigger one,” he said.
Pender County is no stranger to big solar projects. A 672-acre farm with a $70-million price tag was built in the northern part of the county in 2019.
“This is not our first rodeo with a solar farm,” Commissioner George Brown said. “I wasn’t sure where this was going to go in our county a few years ago when I experienced the first one.”
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More than a half-dozen residents came out to speak against Coastal Pine. They echoed commissioner concerns about soil contamination, flooding and the impact of clearing land.
The development team rebutted: It would have no environmental impact on the property; the land could return to timberland once the lifespan of the solar panels expire (any where from 25 to 40 years); it would boost tax revenue; and could benefit the soil by allowing it to lie fallow and build up nutrients in decades to come.
Wesley Wooten, a farmer with property also adjacent to the proposed project, pushed back on every point the Coastal Pine team made. He said notices about the project should have gone out to an area larger than 500 feet from the acreage and claimed solar farms are “terrible” for jobs and economic growth because employees do not stay after construction is complete.
Representatives for Coastal Pine did not present estimates on job creation during the hearing.
Wooten surmised the solar project could turn the massive acreage into a wasteland that cannot be farmed if concrete is left behind in the ground. He was speaking from experience first-hand, explaining how he brought concrete to another site to reinforce panel installations because the developer did not realize how high the water table was.
The developers assured there would be no soil contamination. The piles the solar panels would be mounted on are made from galvanized steel coated in zinc to prevent corrosion with no concrete involved, according to Tommy Cleveland, a solar engineer hired by Coastal Pine, who also used to work for N.C. State University.
Cleveland told the board the farm would have no negative impact on the land and “organic matter” in the soil increases over time on solar farms.
According to the attorney, Terrell, Coastal Pine would also comply with creating a decommissioning plan to remove the panels at the end of their service life expectancy of about 40 years.
Wooten also questioned whether the panels, consisting of heavy metals, would leach contaminants into the ground water if damaged and if their installation could cause flooding.
Terrell shot back, asking for scientific evidence there could be leaching, a risk to water supplies, or any engineering calculations to support the idea there would be flooding.
The panels would stop drawing power if broken, Cleveland added, also noting the materials would not leak into the soil.
Commissioner Brown said later in the meeting, when another solar farm approached the board years back, he hoped to get people to speak to the commissioners about negatives of the farms, like “leakage.”
“That never happened,” Brown said. “In my opinion, I think, before we go any further with too many more solar farms in our county, I would like to hear from experts on the other side of the fence.”
Though civil engineering on the site had not been complete, the Coastal Pine team had to present competent material and substantial evidence to address concerns raised. Terrell said the developer met those requirements and therefore was “entitled” to the permit.
Commissioner Newton was clear she supported property rights as long as it did not cause adverse effect to the environment or harm to neighbors. Her main concerns were with tree loss and potential runoff.
“Clearcutting 2,500 acres of timber plus is not going to be healthy,” she said, noting the county has an affiliation with the American Flood coalition in an effort to be more resilient.
The commissioner also was taken aback the developer had not considered the water table or the county’s well water.
Another resident, Charles Rooks, spoke in the meeting and characterized the project as “light industry.” Newton concurred, saying the solar farm company did not belong in an agricultural district.
Hired by Coastal Pine, planner Kara Drane, with Colliers Engineering and Design, intimated the project would be “harmonious” with the other property uses in the area and not produce noise, emissions, odor or traffic.
The county’s master development plan specifies its purpose is “to ensure that such development occurs in a manner that suits the characteristics of the land, is harmonious with adjoining property, is in substantial compliance with the goals and policies of the adopted Land Use Plan, Unified Development Ordinance, and is in the best interest of the general public.”
The team proposed Coastal Pine install permeable fencing so small wildlife could still graze the farm, to which commissioner Newton asked how a seven-foot fence enclosing the entire 2,360 acres was amicable with nature. Drane said the fencing would not be visible because of buffering around the project.
At the end of the hearing, Terrell appealed to the commissioners as a farmer, stating he understood “the emotion of farming.” He echoed Drane’s sentiments that the farm would be hidden from public view, but reminded the only thing relevant to the board are its ordinance standards.
Commissioner Newton made a motion to deny the request. She cited the project was not of similar use to the agriculture listed in the district, impaired adjoining districts due to the scale of clear-cutting, and constituted a nuisance or hazard.
The board agreed unanimously.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in 25, 30 years, and who’s going to be around to clean it up,” Newton said.
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