Thumbs Down

Published 9:57 am Thursday, May 26, 2016

INDIAN WOODS – They are resources the county, the state, country – even the planet – have in abundance. Still, solar farms and wind farms as clean energy sources remain the cause for debate.

Monday that struck home in Bertie County where despite a vote by the county’s Planning Board recommending a moratorium on solar and wind-generating facilities in the county, the Board of Commissioners rejected that suggestion by a unanimous vote.

During its Feb. 25 meeting, Planning Board member Terry Pratt presented information to his Board on solar and wind farms. Expressing concern regarding the impact of these farms on the economy, future agriculture production and the question of benefit over costs, the Planning Board voted 3-1 to recommend the Commissioners place a moratorium on solar and wind generating facilities in Bertie County, initiate a study to be conducted by an expert or experts in solar and wind energy, and conduct an audit to determine the financial benefits of such facilities.

The moratorium, had it been adopted, would only impact permits for solar or wind energy farms that are currently being planned within any zoning district in the county. It would not affect any solar or wind farm project either under construction or those that had already obtained the proper permits.

Pratt reiterated many of those same findings in a presentation before the Commissioners at their Monday meeting held at the Blue Jay Fire Department in Indian Woods.

“Operated together they would generate less than two percent of the power required (for consumer energy consumption),” Pratt stated. “Both are environmental negatives, and both cost more than they will ever generate.”

Pratt said there is documented evidence of harmful effects from renewable energy facilities. He cited the noise generated by the turning blades of wind turbines, among other cautions noted by wind farm critic John Droz.

“We are asking you to establish, implement, or cause to be a moratorium on all solar and wind farm activity in Bertie County until such time as those facilities can be proven not to be harmful and they will not cause an increase in (your) power bill,” Pratt said.

The Planning Board member presented the state Utilities Commission’s published notice of a pending rate increase hearing sometime in the next six months by Dominion North Carolina Power seeking $51 million in additional revenue.

“This is the first of many to come,” Pratt warned.

Pratt said none of the solar farms, or wind farms, are locally owned and claimed there would be no financial return to the county and that electric utility rates would still continue to rise.

“It doesn’t make sense for us as a county government to initiate something that’s going to cost our citizens a lot of money,” Pratt insisted. “That’s why we’re asking you to put a moratorium on any further development until such time as all this can be straightened out.”

Commissioner Ron Wesson asked Pratt about the current Affordable and Reliable Energy Act of 2014, which sought to curtail the state’s renewable-energy portfolio standard. That measure never came to a vote on the floor of the state House and died in committee. Currently, the renewable-energy standards, adopted in 2007, require utilities to produce part of the power they sell in North Carolina from renewable sources such as solar, wind or biomass.

“If we grant a moratorium here that doesn’t change the law that just pushes it someplace else,” Wesson explained.

Wesson also mentioned testimony given in 2015 before a Utilities Commission hearing in Windsor on the Norma Gurkin property along U.S. 17 where Wesson –then chairman of the Board of Commissioners – testified, along with the owner, that a proposed solar farm facility would have a positive economic impact on the county. Pratt claimed he’d been told the permit was granted in that case – due to Ms. Gurkin’s health and desire to retain her family land – “out of necessity and convenience”.

Current Commissioners’ chairman John Trent spoke in favor of continuing to grant certificates of public convenience and necessity for renewable energy operations within the county.

“If we want to shut Bertie County down and keep it from moving forward, then listen to Mr. Pratt,” Trent said. “If we want to keep on moving forward in what we’re doing and putting people to work then we need to keep moving forward … they’re paying us $38,000 for permit fees. The one (solar farm) that went up over in West Bertie was in the $70-80,000 range. This is money that’s going back into the community, into the general fund balance. It’s not just happening in Bertie County, it’s happening throughout the country.”

Wesson said the county isn’t being “flooded” with solar farms, and permits are granted on a staggered basis.

“Look at the impact it’s made on this county,” Wesson implored. “We went from last, the worst unemployment, to better than Northampton, better than Chowan, better than Martin, and only three-tenths of a point below Hertford. The solar farms were a major piece of employment that put people back to work in this county and it made a difference.”

Wesson went on to say once the leases on the acreage – often reaching $1,200/acre over a 15-year period – expire, the companies are responsible for the disassembly and removal of the equipment.

“They have to replace the land and bring it back to the regular state they found it,” he noted.

Trent pointed to Duke Energy ownership of the solar projects in West Bertie, Cooper Hill Road, and others in the county.

“They’re a business and they should be paid,” Trent said.

They’re putting people to work, they’re hiring people, and they’re putting people with jobs. If you look down Highway 308 you’ll see interconnects going in and you’ll see the substations going in. We can’t keep walking away from any kind of industry.”

“Let’s talk about stepping on the people of this county, state, and nation to provide profits,” Pratt concluded.

Trent then called for a motion on the rejection of the moratorium, despite the Planning Board’s recommendation. Wesson made the motion which was seconded by Commissioner Ernestine (Byrd) Bazemore, and passed by a unanimous vote.

Later, toward the end of the meeting, during comments, Commissioner Stewart White said while he had reservations about solar farms, he wanted to explain his vote.

“If we take up our soybean fields for solar farms, then what would we feed the chickens that Perdue raises?” White wondered. “As an ol’farm boy, I don’t like to see all the solar panels, but it is moving Bertie County forward; so I understand what (both sides) are saying.”

“I’d rather see the solar panels up atop big buildings, and not cover up our farmland because I’m all about the farmer, too,” echoed Commissioner Tammy Lee. “But we don’t have big buildings here in Bertie County.”