CURRITUCK — A San Francisco-based company could begin harvesting energy from the sun sometime next year following Currituck commissioners’ approval Monday of a permit for the first-ever solar energy project in the county.
Ecoplexus Inc. is proposing to set up 86,000 solar panels on 225 acres of farmland across from Shawboro Elementary School and a county trash collection site. If constructed, the solar array in Shawboro would collect enough energy to power an average of 1,900 homes.
Ecoplexus President Erik Stuebe said construction on the $30 million project may begin in the spring if the company finalizes its power purchase agreement by then with Dominion Power.
Other solar farms have also been proposed in Perquimans and Camden counties in recent years, but so far, none have been built. In most cases, the business ventures stalled over finding a wholesale buyer for the renewable energy.
The proposed solar farm site along N.C. Highway 34 may have one advantage. High power transmission lines that already bisect the property will be used to transfer the energy, said Currituck Planning Director Ben Woody.
John Morrison, an attorney with the Twiford Law Firm who spoke on behalf of the company at Monday’s public hearing, said the solar farm will benefit Currituck.
“Currituck has an opportunity to get in the clean energy field ... increase its tax base and with minimal development and no imposition to public services,” Morrison said.
Newly adopted state law only allows the county to tax the project at 20 percent of its value. Even with that restriction, the project is estimated to generate $34,000 a year in county taxes, compared to $900 as farmland.
Currituck commissioners, who unanimously agreed to grant the permit, mostly asked questions about the solar farm’s impact on Shawboro Elementary School, motorists and surrounding property owners.
Glare from the solar panels was one concern.
Morrison said the high transmission, low iron solar panels are designed to absorb light, not reflect it. Ordinary windows would reflect more light than the solar panels will, according to the company.
Also, the panels, about two to eight feet in height, will be aimed away from the school.
The county is requiring the company seek Federal Aviation Administration approval that the solar array will not affect flights at Currituck Regional Airport. Commissioners also expressed concerns about the appearance of the site.
The county is also requiring security fencing and vegetative buffers to screen the site from N.C. 34, the school and nearby homes.
Commissioners also wanted to know if the lawn would be mowed regularly, considering that supervision of the site will be minimal once it is built.
Morrison answered that the company will post a sign with a phone number to contact if there is a concern. He said regular upkeep and inspections are part of the plan.
The project is expected to create some construction jobs when it is built but is expected to need little manpower after that.
Morrison said Ecoplexus expects to run the solar farm for at least 30 years. Because the start-up costs are high, the company is not expecting to make a profit on the energy it sells for the first 15 years, he noted.
According to its website, Ecoplexus has completed more than 30 commercial and municipal scale solar projects in the last 18 months, and currently has approximately 50 projects in the development phase. The company’s client base includes more than 10 city, state and municipal agencies, eight large utilities, and some of the largest multi-family housing developers in the U.S.