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Experts tell Camden commissioners: Solar farms' effects minimal

090617SolarFarm

Construction has started at the site of SunEnergy1 new solar farm in Shiloh, shown here Wednesday.

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By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Thursday, September 7, 2017

CAMDEN — Solar farms don’t create a lot of jobs, but they do increase the tax value of the land on which they’re built.

Solar farms contain panels and other materials that can be easily and safely disposed of in landfills, although recycling is the preferred method of disposal.

Some components of solar farms can leach zinc into soils, but the effects are minimal unless you’re growing peanuts.

As for how they affect humans and wildlife, there are some minimal effects from solar farms on wildlife but none on humans. 

Those were just a few of the key takeaways for Camden commissioners, who spent several hours on Tuesday hearing experts’ advice on range of issues related to solar farms, including their effects on the local economy, wildlife and human health.

Commissioners held the solar facility forum as they consider potential revisions to the county’s current set of ordinances that regulate solar facilities in Camden. Commissioners plan to address any ordinance revisions or changes during a public hearing set for Oct. 2.

The panel of experts in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting included Steve Kalland, executive director of the N.C. State Clean Energy Technology Center; Kevin Martin, renewable energy program manager for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality; and Kacy Cook, a land conservation biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Kalland explained there are basically two types of solar panels in use in the solar industry. The first type are silicon-based panels, which are used in about 90 percent of all solar farms, he said. These panels also include some glass and aluminum, plus trace amounts of lead solder and silver.

"The amounts of those is very trace," he said.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has signed off on silicon-based panels as being completely suitable for disposal in landfills, Kalland said.

"That would not be my preference," he said. "I'd rather see recycling."

The other major type of solar panel relies on cadmium telluride photovoltaic technology and is in use in about 9 percent of the industry, Kalland said. 

Martin said he is aware of at least three facilities in North Carolina, including one in Creedmoor, that recycle solar panels.

Commissioner Tom White asked about the galvanized stands that are used to support the rows of solar panels and their effects on surrounding farmland.

Kalland said the main concern over the use of galvanized steel is zinc leaching into the soil.

"It can be toxic to peanuts," he said. "If you're not a peanut county I wouldn't worry about that."

Commissioner Randy Krainiak asked if that galvanized steel was different from galvanized steel used to make metal roofing and chain-link fences.

No difference, Kalland said.

Cook, at the mention of fencing, spoke up.

"The solar fencing itself has an impact on wildlife because it's an obstacle," she said.

Cook said there is not much research on the impact of solar farms on wildlife, except out west where the facilities are much larger. There is such a thing as the "lake effect," which occurs when waterfowl flying overhead see the sun shining off the panels. The birds mistaken the glare for a body of water and land at the site. However, there is no evidence of that happening in North Carolina, she said.

Cook pointed out that the fencing, which is required by the National Electrical Code, could trap animals that were inside when construction of the facility was completed. To avoid this, she recommended the bottom of the fence be raised a few inches from the ground so that small animals, particularly turtles, could escape.

She also recommended the county require solar sites be built with buffers using native plants and shrubbery for vegetation.

"Black-eyed Susans are really good," she said.

Native plants support about 250 species of insects that birds eat and don't require as much maintenance, like the frequent mowing the often-used fescue calls for, she said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Clayton Riggs asked what effect solar power has on a county’s economic development.

Kalland responded that the standard argument is the county benefits through increased tax revenues. The tax rate on the land on which a solar farm is sited increases when the land moves from agricultural to commercial use, he said.

Additionally, the construction of a solar farm doesn't come with additional costs that other projects do, Kalland said. For example, building a new school requires money for its construction, but also money to build access roads, he said.

As for job creation, commissioners noted that solar farms only provide new jobs for the short period needed to build them.

Kalland agreed. "The reality is you're not going to get a lot of long-term jobs out of solar," he said.

Another chief concern among commissioners is ensuring the county does not incur the cost to decommission a solar facility, in the event several years from now that happens. The amendment commissioners are considering adopting requires the facility's owner, prior to receiving a building permit, to provide a bond to the county. The amount would be equal to the solar farm’s estimated decommissioning cost and used by the county if the owner failed to decommission the site in accordance with county regulations.

Martin asked what the county's current policy is for ensuring businesses in other industries decommission their property in accordance with regulations.

"If the county has to remove it, we put a lien against that piece of property for the removal fee," Riggs said.

Martin asked why the county's policy should be different for solar facilities.

On the issue of solar farms’ effects on human health, Kalland said there really isn’t much for residents to worry about.

"There just aren't health issues related to these systems to be concerned about," he said.

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