A 25-Megawatt solar farm has been proposed in Columbus County; it’s not the first, and likely not the last. WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer has this report, in partnership with Diana Matthews of the News Reporter in Whiteville.
This story is in partnership with the News Reporter in Whiteville. You can read their original reporting here.
Another new solar farm may be coming to Columbus County — although local residents have pushed back on the development.
The first solar farm came to Columbus County about 10 years ago, and solar farms have proliferated there since.
Many solar developments show up in rural areas of the state, since land prices are a bit lower. Columbus County has 14 farms so far. Data from NC Sustainable Energy Alliance (NCSEA) shows that Robeson County has the most farms, with 40 individual solar farms, while Nash County produces more energy with its 29 systems.
Most solar farms are installed on former agricultural land, and there are more than 700 solar power farms across the state already.
The Whiteville News Reporter had a journalist at a recent Board of Adjustments hearing for the development. Diana Matthews told WHQR the proposed solar farm is eight miles from Whiteville.
“It's proposed to occupy almost 250 acres northwest of Whiteville, that would be medium-size as local solar farms go,” she said.
Solar farms have been touted for bringing jobs to rural areas, but much of the economic benefit comes from tax revenue.
“During the construction phase, the applicants told the board of adjustment that they would use local labor for construction,” Matthews explained. “But once it's in operation, it's a pretty low-maintenance thing.” She added that most of the local jobs would be routine maintenance and landscaping.
The 25-megawatt farm will generate enough electricity to power 6,000 homes if it’s built, but the vote to approve it has been delayed till next month. The Board of Adjustments said they wanted to take the time to allow any opponents to submit legally admissible testimony before they make their decision.
Opponents say the farm would harm the “rural character” of their neighborhood and would hurt their property values.
“The attorney for the applicant stood up after that comment and called it ‘classic hearsay.,'" Matthews said.
Matthews reports Midfield Solar would be building the farm, and it would be owned and operated by Oakhurst Energy. The Raleigh-based companies have developed more than 400 megawatts worth of solar farms in the Carolinas.
The state government has mandated that Duke cut its carbon emissions, and Duke agreed to a carbon plan at the end of last year. While the plan is flexible, it does include a requirement that Duke buy more than 2,300megawatts of new solar capacity to be in service by 2028.
Advocates like NCSEA actually pushed Duke towards even more solar. They said it would be the most cost-effective method for Duke to keep rates low while dropping coal plants and other carbon-intensive methods of energy production.
Columbus County is at the forefront of some of those efforts, as one of the top 20 counties for solar energy in the state. NCSEA provided WHQR with data on North Carolina's top solar-producing counties.
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Solar farms aren’t the only developments in Columbus County. While the area’s population has declined in recent years, Diana Matthews says the exploding population in nearby Pender and Brunswick counties and across the state line may come into Columbus in the next decade.
“We anticipate seven to 10,000 new homes possibly being built in the next decade at least, according to our County Planning and Economic director,” Matthews said. “The first couple thousand of those homes are already at different stages of possible approval process going through the planning board and the county commissioners.”
Matthews says new housing developments are mostly cropping up where Columbus County borders South Carolina.