Orange County solar farm arising on land formerly zoned for trailer park

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJuly 16, 2013 

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Erosion control barriers are piled up as acreage is graded and drained along the property line of a new 35-acre solar farm off of White Cross Road in southwest Orange County Tuesday. Strata Solar began clearing for the new solar farm, the largest in Orange County and second largest in the Triangle in early July estimating the project will take about three months to complete.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Orange County, one of the most environmentally conscious areas of the state, is finally getting a major league solar farm of its own.

A 5-megawatt solar project under construction in the rural community of White Cross will not only be that county’s biggest by far, but also the second-biggest in the Triangle.

“There’s nothing like this here,” said Steve Brantley, Orange County’s economic development director.

The project, designed and overseen by Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar, will be constructed on an unused tract that had been previously zoned for a trailer park. The mobile homes were never developed and the unused land became grown over with trees.

Building the White Cross solar farm required clear-cutting 35 acres of woodland, which also provided the project with mounds of mulch to use for erosion control.

“We truly try to minimize it, but there are a lot of trees in North Carolina and sometimes it happens,” said Strata Solar spokesman Blair Schooff of the mass mulching. “We’d rather not cut them, but what we are doing, in terms of green energy generation and CO2 offsetting, is a reasonable justification for cutting trees on occasion.”

Orange County officials say the White Cross solar farm will displace 4,224 tons of carbon dioxide annually. That’s more than twice the carbon dioxide that would be stored by 35 acres of trees, based on a U.S. Forest Service formula.

The White Cross project will begin generating electricity in about three months and will sell the power output to Duke Energy. It will rely on 26,000-plus solar panels and will be capable of powering about 750 homes, officials said.

Strata is the state’s biggest solar developer, already generating more than 145 megawatts throughout the state and eight solar farms planned in the Triangle alone. A 17-megawatt project planned in Chatham County will be three times bigger than the one being built in White Cross and a similarly-sized project already producing power in the Wake County community of Willow Spring.

A steady stream of industrial-scale solar projects has merited North Carolina a fifth-place ranking nationwide for solar development from the Solar Energy Industries Association. Strata Solar is also developing a 75-megawatt project in Duplin County, by far the state’s largest proposed.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory made a personal appearance at Strata Solar’s Willow Spring solar farm last month to declare June to be Solar Energy Month.

North Carolina’s solar projects are driven by policies that offer financial incentives that cut the cost of solar development by more than half.

One of those policies is the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, enacted in 2007. It requires electric utilities to offset retail power sales with clean energy and allows the utilities to charge customers extra for that power if necessary.

Also important is the state tax credit that covers 35 percent of the cost of a solar farms and other renewable projects, up to $2.5 million. A similar federal tax credit lops off another 30 percent of development cost.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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