The Smithfield Town Council last week signed off on a 40-acre solar farm to be built north of U.S. 70 Business.
In order to take advantage of state tax breaks, the developer plans to have at least 80 percent of construction done by the end of the year, said Chris Killenberg of Community Energy Inc. The company plans to generate five megawatts and sell the power to Duke Energy.
The site lies off of U.S. 70 Business between its intersections with Barbour Road and M. Durwood Stephenson Highway, just north of Smithfield’s town limits. That’s not far from the Johnston County Airport, which means Community Energy will need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure glare from the panels does not interfere with aircraft.
The land sits a good ways off of U.S. 70 Business, Smithfield Planning Director Paul Embler said, and the solar farm should not be visible to motorists. Regardless, the town will require the developer to plant a landscaping buffer around the solar farm.
The landowner, Ellen Fleming, will lease her land to Community Energy. The income, she said, will allow her family to continue farming the surrounding land by helping to pay their property tax bill. Fleming said she believes in the importance of farms, but taxes make a landowner wonder every day whether it’s worth continuing.
“We as a nation must not keep putting all of our farmland under concrete,” she said. “I believe deeply that we need energy independence, but even more, I think we need food independence.”
Community Energy plans to operate the solar farm for 30 years, Killenberg said, at which point the panels will have dropped to 80 percent efficiency. After that time, the company will remove the infrastructure, he said.
“We pull it back out, and it’s farm land all over again,” he said.
Johnston County has seen a flood of solar-farm development in the past couple of years, and Smithfield has been no exception. Town ordinances include no specific rules regarding renewable-energy plants, and Embler, the planning director, suggested the council adopt rules specific to solar farms.
Having heard that, Councilman Charles Williams made a motion to put a moratorium on new solar farms until the town has had time to develop and implement regulations. The councilman withdrew the motion, however, after Town Attorney Bob Spence raised legal concerns with the idea.
Instead, the council directed Embler to begin work on the rules as soon as possible. Embler said he could have something ready in about 60 days.
“I will immediately start researching,” Embler said. “There are a number of communities that have recently adopted ordinances, and I’m sure we could hybridize an ordinance.”
Smithfield does not have any other solar-farm requests in its pipeline, Embler said.
Killenberg has experience with many local ordinances, he said, because Community Energy has 19 solar farms operating across the state and 20 more in the works. It’s a good idea for Smithfield to make some rules, Killenberg said, and he assured the council that the 40-acre farm off U.S. 70 Business would comply with most towns’ ordinances.