State Politics

Solar panels permanently ‘ruin’ farmland, NC senator says

A 250-kilowatt solar farm covers about one-quarter of the roof of OFM, a furniture importer in Holly Springs.
A 250-kilowatt solar farm covers about one-quarter of the roof of OFM, a furniture importer in Holly Springs. TED RICHARDSON - trichard@newsob

N.C. Sen. Bill Cook, a Beaufort County Republican, says the state needs to tackle the growth of solar farms on agricultural fields because the land that’s used is “pretty well ruined” for future farming.

The topic surfaced Thursday during a legislative committee meeting on agriculture. A representative from the N.C. Department of Agriculture said population growth and other factors are causing a loss of acreage for agriculture.

“Anything that affects the loss of farmland, which is the main resource in doing what we do,” needs attention, legislative liaison Joy Hicks said. She mentioned residential development and said the department also fields questions about solar installations.

Cook agreed and kept the spotlight on solar.

“I’m real happy to hear that you guys are concerned about the use of farmland for solar farms and such,” Cook said. “I recently read an article about it, and it sounds like once farmland is converted to use for solar farms, it’s not coming back, and eventually that land is pretty well ruined for any kind of farming.”

Experts on solar energy say Cook’s concerns are largely unfounded. Steve Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State, said the long-term impact of solar panels on farmland is small and manageable.

He listed several minor potential effects: Gravel roads to install and maintain the panels could lead to some soil compacting. Herbicides are often used to keep plants from growing over the panels, but similar herbicides are used in crop production. And zinc from steel supports could leach into the soil, but that would cause problems only for peanut production.

“There’s a lot of red herrings being thrown out there by opponents of green energy around these land-use issues,” Kalland said. “Those issues are really, really overblown and not significant.”

Solar opponents have pointed to an article that N.C. State University professor Ron Heiniger wrote late last year. It described grasses, weeds and shrubs growing like nuisances around solar installations, with panels capturing about 20 percent of the light and the rest feeding the unwanted growth.

Heiniger said efforts to fight the vegetation, with persistent mowing and use of herbicides and other materials, would hurt the land.

Recent calculations show solar installations have made almost no impact on the farmland portfolio overall. According to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, solar farms occupy about 3,300 acres, or 0.036 percent, of the roughly 8.4 million acres of agricultural land in North Carolina.

“The vast majority of solar installations are not on farmland, or they are on farmland that has gone fallow,” said Dan Whitten, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association. “To the extent that solar panels are located on farms, they are bringing revenue to farmers that they would not otherwise have and keeping family farms in the family.”

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican who is a farmer and chairs several agricultural committees, said he agrees with Cook that solar farms are a concern.

But “it’s a smaller issue in my opinion compared to houses,” he said.

Thursday’s discussion at the legislature wasn’t the first time solar farms have prompted concerns in North Carolina. Last month, the tiny Northampton County town of Woodland passed a moratorium on new solar farms. Leaders there said they didn’t want solar installations surrounding the town on all sides.

But Woodland got international notoriety after several residents’ comments went viral online. One warned that solar panels would suck up energy from the sun, while another noted that the area had seen an increase in cancer deaths.

None of those issues were raised at Thursday’s meetings. But Wood Farless, a Bertie County farmer appointed to the panel by Gov. Pat McCrory, voiced a concern specific to Eastern North Carolina.

“If a hurricane comes in and wipes out one of the solar farms, it’s categorized as a hazardous waste,” Farless said. “It’s cost prohibitive to clean that up.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter