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News & Events | Strata Solar, Chapel Hill, NC

O2 Energies, Strata Solar debut Avery’s first solar farm

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

Elected officials, business leaders, educators and leaders in solar energy all gathered at Trim Branch Road to commemorate the completion of Avery County’s first large-scale solar energy farm. The new solar array, which will produce approximately one mega-watt per hour under peak conditions, was developed by O2 Energies with the help of Strata Solar, numerous local contractors and a specially trained labor force from Avery County. The crowd gathered last Thursday, Sept. 29, at Camp Yonohnoka in Linville before boarding an activity bus provided by Avery County Schools to drive to the site of the new 6-acre solar farm. Once at the farm, the crowd collected to hear several speakers comment on the solar array and what it may mean for Avery County. First to speak was Tommy Burleson, director of Avery County Planning and Inspections. Burleson, who grew up near the solar farm’s location, spoke of his personal experience training in the area for his time in the NBA. Burleson also spoke of Avery County’s past economic staples, second homes and agriculture, both of which, he explained, are struggling in the current economy. Burleson suggested that solar energy could be the new industry that Avery needs.

When Burleson finished speaking, Joel Olsen, founder and managing director of O2 Energies, took the stage to explain what the solar farm can do. Olsen began by addressing a common criticism of solar energy, that it is unreliable and inconsistent as a result of weather and limited periods of direct sunlight. According to Olsen, the solar panels installed at Trim Branch Road are of such quality that they can produce substantial energy from even ambient light. Olsen even claimed that the panels may be activated to produce some energy at night if the sky is clear and moon is full. In regards to the inconsistent output, Olsen pointed out that in an area such as Avery County, where most energy use occurs during regular work hours, the solar farm’s peak hours of output will match peak hours of energy consumption.

Olsen also stressed the importance of the project for the local economy, explaining how many local contractors were used in the installation of the solar array. In addition to local contractors, construction of the solar farm required a trained labor-force, which was not readily available in the area. Rather than bring in workers from elsewhere in the state, however, Strata Solar, the solar energy company hired by O2 Energies to install the solar array, worked with Mayland Community College to train 20 local workers in OSEA standards as well as most aspects of solar array installation.

“This is not just O2’s project,” said Olsen. “This is Avery County’s project.”

Also speaking at the farm were Richard Grubb of Mountain Electric Cooperative, who explained some of the technical aspects of integrating the solar array into the local power grid, and Ina Winters, whose son, James Winters, was able to achieve long-term employment after a long period of unemployment after receiving OSEA training and the opportunity to work on the solar farm.

The opening ceremony concluded with a symbolic connection of electric cables to denote the farm approaching operational completion.

Upon returning to Linville, several other speakers took the stage to speak about the importance of the solar farm and what role such enterprises may play in the future.

Avery County Chamber of Commerce President Dave Calvert spoke about the introduction of new industry to the area.

“The opportunity for development in Avery County is always welcome,” said Calvert.

Markus Wilhelm, CEO of Chapel Hill based Strata Solar, took the microphone to explain the solar energy industry, where it is going and what it may mean for Avery County to be on board. Wilhelm, who started Strata Solar three years ago after a full career as a publisher in New York, explained that the company already has 85 employees, including 10 from Avery County who chose to continue working in solar installation after the solar farm on Trim Branch Road was complete. To provide perspective on the future growth of the solar industry in North Carolina, Wilhelm explained that he expects those 85 employees to grow to more than 200 within a year.

Wilhelm was quick to give recognition to local workers as well as local government officials for taking the necessary steps to ensure that the solar farm was a success.

“I know we did something good. This is a project we should all be proud of, and you made it happen,” said Wilhelm.

After his speech, Wilhelm addressed several additional concerns regarding solar power. In response to a questions about over-estimation of output, Wilhelm claimed that, as a smaller company, he is able to provide accurate estimates for energy production. “We have installed more than 100 systems. Not one has under-produced,” said Wilhelm.

Wilhelm also explained some of the reasons that solar energy is growing so rapidly. According to Wilhelm, people appreciate that solar energy is small, quiet and quick to install, as opposed to wind or nuclear energy, which require huge investments of time and resources during a period when resources are limited and the industry is growing at such a rate that making a plan that requires decades to build and establish means that the finished product will be obsolete when it is finally complete. According to Wilhelm, however, the main factor in the prevalence of solar energy is that the cost of materials, especially the photovoltaic panels themselves, has dropped dramatically over the past few years.

North Carolina Sen. Ralph Hise praised the introduction of new private industry, as opposed to the Christmas tree industry, which, according to Hise, was brought about through government programs to replace the cabbage and tobacco industries.

Phillip Frye, Avery County’s representative in the General Assembly, expressed his admiration for the innovative direction that local farmers, businesses and officials are taking.

“I’m just so proud of Avery County; proud that it came to this point,” said Frye.

To wrap up the reception, Olsen took the stage to describe the importance of solar energy in the future of the area. Olsen explained that the TVA is shutting down many of its older coal power plants.“That energy has to come from somewhere,” said Olsen.

Phyllis Forbes spoke on behalf of Avery County Board of Commissioners. Three commissioners were present, including Forbes, Martha Hicks and Glenn Johnson. Forbes confirmed plans for additional, smaller solar plants in the region, including another 200-kilowatt plant in Avery County. Burleson added that a total of three additional solar arrays have been approved in the county, with and additional two still waiting review.