Editor’s Note: This story was submitted by the Union County Alliance for Responsible Solar Power Development. Email this group at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The southern region of Union County is known for its equestrian communities, rich history of agriculture, charming Southern towns, abundant parks and natural areas. Towns like Waxhaw, Mineral Springs and Monroe anchor this part of the county, providing quaint restaurants, antique stores and farmers markets that rival some of the best in the state. The economic development vision, transportation plans and vision for the future of Union County are quite aptly captured in the Union County Comprehensive Plan.
The one thing not captured in the 2014 plan is the adoption and growth of power generation facilities or commercially zoned uses on large tracts of agriculturally zoned properties. Pause.
We realize that was a quick and rather provocative pivot from the scene painted above but it underscores the growing concerns of residents in the southern part of Union County.
In the past year, a 400-acre industrial-sized solar power generation facility (sometimes called a “solar farm”) was approved via a Union County Special Use Application to the county zoning board. This facility is located directly south across the street from Stonebridge Golf Club.
Prior to approval by the county, the State Utility Commission in Raleigh had to approve an application filed by the builder of the solar power facility. Prior to filing the application, the solar power builder had to find and partner with a land owner that would be willing to lease their acreage (typically for 20-25 years) for solar power generation use for the going rate of roughly $1,000/acre/year.
Underlying this process is the power company that agrees to either buy the power generated by the builder or [eventually] buy the solar facility from the builder to avoid the middle man cut. This is the scenario that has transpired at the Monroe Solar Farm facility.
On the heels of the newly completed Monroe solar power facility is another application recently filed in June with the State Utility Commission by Fresh Air Energy II LLC out of San Francisco, CA, to build a 700-acre, 71-megawatt (MW) solar power generation facility just over 1.5 miles southwest as crow flies from the existing Monroe Solar Farm. If approved and constructed this would be one of the largest solar power generation facilities in the state and the US.
That application is currently still in “open” status as the state has received “by orders of magnitude” a large number of complaints to the application.
Ironically, the same land owner has offered up what is nearly a contiguous tract of agricultural land used for growing corns and beans and dense forests – removed during this past summer – that sits between Potter Road on west flank, Parkwood middle and high schools on the east flank, much of the land on either side of Parkwood School Road in-between, and almost all the land running south to Nesbit Road. This tract of land is squarely in the hub of our county’s equestrian, agricultural and residential areas bordered by over 30 residents.
North Carolina is the second largest generator of solar power right behind California. Both states trump all others … by a lot. Most of the state of NC’s current 9,000 acres being used for solar power generation are in the eastern part of state where the solar facilities are located on agricultural lands surrounded by other agricultural land … not residents and schools.
So what argument is being made here?
Are Union County residents concerned about health and environmental risks of industrial scale solar power generation facilities to people and natural habitats or the tie-up and conversion of large tracts of agricultural property for over 20 years into power generation facilities or the “flash-bang” temporary offer of creating local jobs that go away as quickly as they arrive or the potential for large tract land owners to monopolize agricultural assets essentially holding the land and surrounding land owners hostage or simply the loss of property value within the surrounding areas?
We are not going to offer opinion on any of these questions because all it takes is a simple look-up and review of resources available from the NC State University Clean Energy Center or UNC Chapel Hill School of Government and the Union County Planning and Zoning offices and Board of Adjusters members (former and current) and past meeting notes to gain answers to many of these questions … its virtually all online.
This past summer a number of us sat through a solar power “fact from fiction” presentation delivered by NC State University Clean Energy Program and Duke Power that was hosted by the Union County Agricultural Extension Office. It was quite helpful and revealing of several not-so-positive trends. We learned that the state goal is utilization of 1 percent of its 4.75 million acres of cropland for solar power generation (i.e. 47,500 acres). As mentioned above, ~9,000 acres are converted presently so there is plenty of room for growth.
The question becomes …which counties are most suitable for shouldering the remaining ~38,500 acres?
Apparently, Union County has the potential to become one of the largest generators of solar power in the state. If approved, over 1,100 acres in southern Union County alone could be producing power by 2019.
OK then, what are we driving at?
We would simply like to encourage Union County citizens – new arrivals or those planning to move to our area based on reading the plan – and the Union County Planning and Zoning officials and Board of Adjusters – to closely consider the forthcoming and future special use applications being filed for solar power generation facilities and the potential negative impacts they will have on our communities and future land use plans. Underscore: solar power generating facilities larger than 100 acres capable of generating over 10 MWs of power.
From an economic development standpoint and quality of life for its residents, we’d like folks to consider the original spirit and intent [read: direct marketing and allure] provided in the plan. The Plan clearly states the county’s “Updated Goal Framework” (page 16) which includes objectives like livability, conservation, farming, and good health and its “Future Land Use Plan” (page 19) that includes goals for future development …
“New development respects the agriculture areas. The public is keenly aware of the value of Union’s agriculture industry and actively supports farming and forestry operations. Rural farm-to-market roads and bridges are improved and farmers have access to the technology and infrastructure they need to be competitive.”
And if solar power generation is considered a key requirement for supporting a renewable power supply to residents and businesses coming into the county, the County Planning Board and Zoning Administration should consider adopting a solar development ordinance that can be openly vetted in public forum to insure proper alignment with the counties future land use plans. Currently, there is no accounting for the growth and adoption of solar power generation in the plan.
We also have a specific concern we’d like to share with both the state and county regarding development of future solar power generation facilities. It’s our understanding that these facilities should not degrade, replace, or cause harm to existing agricultural or forest resources.
The current application for the 700-acre MW solar power generation facility in Union County provides a map that shows the extent and reach of the facility and the ground it will stretch across. Nearly 50 acres of the 700-acre tract are forested with mature second-generation hardwoods forests. Over 25 acres of those forests have recently been clear cut after the current application with the State Utility Commission was filed.
If solar power system construction companies working to market their plans to our farmers and land owners face no rules or regulations for the impacts they will have on Union County lands, where does this trend stop? Does this set an alarming precedent for future solar power generation in the county? Does this kind of activity match up with Union Counties aforementioned Future Land Use Planning goals?
We also found it concerning that the application filed states on page 4 that the proposed solar power generating facility will be “… situated on six parcels of unused farmland”. While recently harvested, anyone could drive down Parkwood School or Nesbit roads and clearly see soy beans actively growing across each of these parcels.
We are sharing these observations and concerns to draw attention to the growth of this type of industrial land use that has largely gone unchecked and unaccounted for in Union County and in the state, where the urban-wildland intersection is more pronounced.
The overwhelming majority of industrial-sized solar power generating facilities in the state are not surrounded by urban or residential areas.
The urban-wildland interface requires careful study to avoid unnecessary risks to Union County and its residents.
We encourage state and county officials to take a closer look at the growth of solar power generating facilities in Union County and to explore options for more formal accounting (amendment or new ordinance) and balance for this type of land planning, development and zoning. Industrial-sized solar power generating facilities – any type of power generating facility – are commonly zoned as a commercial land use. The current use of Special Use Applications for industrial-sized solar power generation facility development needs to be reevaluated.
We suggest it’s time to take a closer look at that practice and develop a more formal evaluation and designation of this type of commercial land use – clearly a newer land use that is taking place on our agricultural and forested lands … and is now knocking on the door of our residential areas.