Bertie ‘shining bright’

Published 8:27 am Thursday, March 19, 2015

ASKEWVILLE – The “green-ing” of Bertie County continues.

Green energy, that is.

At the regular monthly evening meeting of the county’s Board of Commissioners, held Monday at Askewville Town Hall, a representative of SunEnergy-1 outlined several projects his company is pursuing in the county.

SunEnergy-1, a Mooresville, NC-based company, already has one solar energy farm in Bertie County located on just over 52 acres of land off Cooper Hill Road near the Cashie River in a joint venture with the county and the Town of Windsor.

At the meeting, Heath McLaughlin, a SunEnergy-1 spokesman, said Bertie is fertile ground for expansion in his industry.

The surge in solar activity statewide is credited in part to North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio standard enacted over six years ago. The standard requires investor-owned utility companies like Duke Energy and Dominion-North Carolina Power to get 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. North Carolina also offers extremely attractive tax incentives.

“We have two projects planned for this county,” McLaughlin said. “One is a smaller mid-sized project up near Kelford and the other is a larger project northwest of Windsor.”

McLaughlin praised the co-operation SunEnergy-1 has received from the county.

“Everyone here’s been very supportive and very welcoming, and we really appreciate that,” he noted. “We haven’t had any hurdles that have been exceptional.”

SunEnergy-1 has roughly 15 solar farm projects statewide, most located east of I-95, ranging in size from as small as 50 acres that take about three months to construct, to over 1000 acres in Edgecombe County that could employ upwards of 800 people for a period of 12-to-18 months.

“The project we’re considering in Bertie County may be of that size,” McLaughlin indicated. “There may be a little more to it because the logistics are a little more challenging.  It’s a long process but it can be rewarding.”

McLaughlin also indicated the state tax credit that was allocated some five years ago will be expiring at the end of this year, thus creating a rush to complete as many solar farm projects as possible to take advantage.

Commissioner Stewart White asked McLaughlin the number of county citizens SunEnergy-1 would employ on the projects.

“Do we have the workforce to meet your deadline,” White asked.

While not specifying a number, the spokesman indicated worker’s duties vary.

“The idea is to have local job fairs and put up the kinds of jobs we have,” he said. “It’s everything from construction work, to the people who put the panels on, to laying down gravel, to security work.”

Commission chairman Ronald D. “Ron” Wesson complimented SunEnergy-1 on their hiring practice with regard to Bertie citizens and hoped for better success with the new projects

“We have a lot of good qualified people here who have some experience and we hope you will work with (our) folks here,” Wesson said. “We can get qualified people in front of you, but we really want you to look hard at Bertie County folks and try to employ as many county folks as you can.”

McLaughlin cautioned that with the deadline approaching there was probably a job crunch: with too many jobs and not enough people.

“We have a lot of projects lined up and ready to go,” he said, “but if that (tax credit) deadline’s not extended then we may have to go fast and do as many as we can, so I would not be surprised if we’re not building at ten sites towards the end of the year; so at that point we want locals.  From our point of view that’s way more advantageous.”

Wesson said 138 Bertie people worked on the last solar project (a Strata Solar project near Perdue in Lewiston) and at least that number were trained and ready to go on any new projects and he added he hoped SunEnergy-1 would consider that when hiring.

Commissioner John Trent said many of those same workers from the Lewiston site transitioned to the next solar site, which is the one on Wakelon Road.

“That goes to show once they learn the skill-set they are very valuable,” Trent said. “Once trained, you want to keep using them. It’s just great to see Bertie County citizens have this type of opportunity.”

McLaughlin reminded everyone that things were still in a planning stage and there are no guarantees.

“Electricity goes local,” he added. “It goes to the local community first, and you’re going to use it before anyone else does.”

Commissioner Ernestine Byrd Bazemore questioned the application process with reference to some applicants being turned down because of the process.

“We’re open to the idea that if they’re hard working and they’ve got good aptitude and they want to learn it just comes down to critical skills,” McLaughlin said.

Commissioner Tammy Lee inquired about the life span of solar farms and was told it’s typically 30 years and most of the equipment is re-cycleable.

When asked about land prices McLaughlin said leases he negotiates for SunEnergy-1 vary from a low of roughly $300 per acre to a high of $700.

“Most of the investors pick projects that make sense for them economically,” he said. “The condition of the land has a lot to do with the price you’re going to get.”

As the question-&-answer session neared an end Wesson said SunEnergy-1 had kept its word.

“Their work was clean, it was efficient, they did everything they said they would do and from that it attracted similar businesses to the county,” Wesson said. “It really has been a boom, and it changes things in Bertie County.”