There are over 300 ground-mounted utility-scale solar energy facilities producing electricity across North Carolina. These systems, which are often called “solar farms,” are now common enough and dispersed widely enough across the state that most North Carolinians are aware that some of the state’s electricity is generated by large solar facilities. However, nearly all of these systems have been built in just the last four years; which means many people are not very familiar with the technology or its potential impacts. As continued solar energy development brings new projects all across the state, many communities have questions about solar energy and its impacts. The Center knows the answers to many of the most common questions and is working with N.C. Cooperative Extension to share these answers and to also help provide communities with the resources needed to explore more difficult policy questions as well.
A recent example of these solar education efforts came in mid-January at a community event. Tommy Cleveland, an engineer with the the Center, was one of three speakers in an early morning information session on solar energy at a county Cooperative Extension venue. Cleveland explained some of the basics of today’s solar technology and how solar facilities are typically financed, built, and maintained. In the audience were landowners interested in leasing land for a solar facility, local government officials seeking to learn more, and neighbors of proposed solar projects wondering how they may be affected. Cleveland explained that the solar projects being built today do not pose a health or safety risk to the neighboring community, and that they in fact help clean the air and water by causing a reduction in air emissions from regional coal and natural gas electricity generating plants. The Center is currently working closely with N.C. Cooperative Extension to be a part of a solar information session offered to other N.C. counties.
In addition to county education sessions, the Center along with N.C. Cooperative Extension have been working on a series of factsheets on solar energy and its impacts. Several factsheets have already been published, including a basic introduction to understanding solar energy in North Carolina entitled “What is Solar,” as well as two written by the Cooperative Extension legal experts to help landowners understand the potential for solar on their land and to understand solar land lease contracts. The factsheets, currently under development, are on the health and safety impacts of solar, balancing agriculture and solar in N.C., and decommissioning solar projects at the end of their lifetime. The team developing these factsheets are doing so with support from published research as well as local experts at N.C. State University.
Since the regular development of the multi-megawatt solar facilities only started in the past few years, very little has been published on the potential impacts of utility-scale solar development on agriculture. Therefore, developing a factsheet with the best information on this topic takes time and input from many different experts. It is known that there are no emissions from the operation of a solar facility. It is also known that solar panels are very durable and can function for 30 years or more in the field. Agricultural experts say that once a solar facility is removed from the site it can return to agricultural production with little more than an application of lime and fertilizer. The challenging questions are generally not technical in nature, but are strategic policy questions on which the Center can provide information resources and examples from other locales, but cannot make policy decisions.