Editorial: Solar farms play key role in energy independence | JournalNow.com

News & Events | Strata Solar, Chapel Hill, NC

Making Energy Among the Christmas Trees

NEWLAND — Luke Henderson wasn’t too sure about selling off a piece of his Avery County Christmas tree farm to make way for a new kind of farm, one planted with row upon row of solar panels.

But with a slack economy weighing on his business, as well as depressed wholesale prices for his evergreens, Henderson decided selling 6 acres of his 33-acre farm made good economic sense.

“To me, it was a way to create more income for my family and a way to create jobs for the community,” Henderson said Thursday after an afternoon ceremony to mark the completion of the project.

The $5 million project used local residents for everything from site preparation work to drawing up legal documents. It translated into about 20 installation jobs, with eight of those earning an industry standard certification they can take to other jobs. And it moved the land into a higher tax category.

“I think once people get used to it, we’ll see more of this,” said Henderson, who added that he’s also considering another solar farm project on other farmland he owns.

The Christmas tree industry in Avery and surrounding counties has seen falling wholesale prices as farmers have transitioned out of growing tobacco, as well as increased competition from states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

North Carolina’s more than 1,500 growers produce 18 percent of the Christmas trees in the U.S. The sale of Christmas trees in Avery County generates more than $20 million.

At least three more solar farms are already in the pipeline, according to local economic development officials, who touted solar panels as a sort of new cash crop.

The projects are developing a new workforce in the growing renewable energy field, helping distressed farmers with an influx of cash and generating clean power.

“In the next 10 years, energy creation is the place for job creation and the creation of new technologies,” said Joel Olsen, managing director of O2 energies Inc., the Charlotte-based company that was the developer and is the owner of Avery Solar LLC, the solar farm on Henderson’s property.

The company, which turned to contractors, set up rows of blue solar panels next to lines of blue-green trees on an unused part of the Christmas tree farm. The 1-megawatt array generates enough power to offset the annual electrical consumption of about 120 homes in the distribution grid operated by Mountain Electric Cooperative, which buys the power.

The membership cooperative is a Tennessee Valley Authority affiliate and the only cooperative in North Carolina to buy power from the TVA, which offers incentives for the purchase of green power like solar.

Those types of incentives, offered by both federal and state government, continue to power the growth of renewable energy projects. North Carolina state law requires investor-owned electric utilities to meet at least 12.5 percent of energy needs through renewable sources or energy efficiency steps by 2021. Cooperatives and municipal electrical suppliers have a 10 percent requirement.

“I’m excited to see projects like this coming home,” said state Rep. Ralph Hise, who supported the increased solar requirement.

There’s also a state requirement for 0.2 percent of retail electric sales to come from solar power by 2018, one that has already resulted in the creation of 2,000 jobs and 150 companies, according to Olsen.

A proposal to increase that requirement hasn’t made it into law yet, but Olsen said there’s a continued push to make that happen. Those incentives, combined with falling construction costs, the need for improvements to an aging U.S. electrical grid and the high public popularity of solar energy, make solar farms a powerful economic development force, he said.

Markus Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Strata Solar LLC, was a key engineering and construction contractor on the Avery County project.

“Solar is a new industry that makes social sense, economic sense,” Wilhelm said, “and it’s creating jobs with a bright future.”