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Seeking answers to solar energy questions

Let me be honest: I don’t have a problem with the idea of solar energy.

I think it’s a fantastic idea to pursue solar power as a renewable energy source. Unlike plenty of other energy sources that we currently rely on, the sun definitely isn’t going away anytime soon. It’ll set tonight and rise tomorrow like it does every day.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with diversifying our energy sources in order to continue powering the planet we live on. (As we saw recently with the gas shortage incident, having a wider array of options is always a good thing.)

Locally, there has been plenty of discussion about solar facilities in recent years.

One of the first stories I covered for this newspaper in 2017 was a public hearing for rezoning a piece of property in Northampton County. Solar facilities in the county are only permitted in land zoned Agricultural Residential (AR), and the parcel in question was zoned Light Industrial.

The commissioners at the time choose to deny that rezoning request after hearing the Planning Board’s recommendation. They concluded that the change would be considered “illegal spot zoning” as rezoning from Light Industrial would not fit with the county’s land use plan. Several people at the hearing spoke against the proposal solar farm project, and only the landowner had favorable things to say.

Since then, I’ve covered a few other public hearings for rezoning a parcel for the same purpose. The most recent one was a couple-hundred-acres parcels of land outside of Gaston. Those rezoning requests (to switch from AR Watershed to AR) were approved by the commissioners.

But the requests also sparked a conversation among the Northampton Commissioners about the future of solar facilities in the county. Board Chair Charles Tyner said they should look further into the topic, and possibly consider imposing a moratorium until further studies could be done. As of now, however, nothing definitive has been decided.

In Hertford County, where they have also seen an increase in solar facilities over the past few years, the county board of commissioners did put a temporary moratorium in place, and as recently as last month approved more stringent restrictions on solar facilities in the county. One of those new restrictions included changing the minimum setback distance to adjoining properties from 50 feet to 200 feet.

Again, many people attended that meeting in Hertford County to express their concerns about solar facilities. Representatives from a solar development company also spoke to express their side of the story.

Like I said earlier, I think solar energy is a great idea. But like many other citizens, I have concerns as well about the way we go about the whole business.

Many of these local solar facilities are built on land that was previously used as farmland. In some cases, woods land is cleared to set up the “field” of solar panels. I suppose this is why they’re often called solar “farms” even though that’s a pretty inaccurate description. The solar farms are just collecting the solar energy, not growing or raising it like any other kind of farm would.

In an area like ours, where a lot of our economy is agriculturally-based, the solar facilities can have a detrimental impact on local farmers. Firstly, they often take away from the farmland available to use, and a reduction in acreage can have a big impact on a farmer’s livelihood. I’ve grown up around farming my entire life, so I know how difficult it already is to make a living without losing farmland.

Secondly, if the solar facility is poorly maintained, there will be nothing stopping invasive weeds from growing and spreading. Weeds like palmer amaranth, for example, can cause big problems if they are left unchecked, and they have no regard for property lines. What starts as a small problem in one area could easily spread to surrounding areas. Additionally, I don’t think it’s going to be easy to turn land left fallow for decades back into productive farm land after a solar facility is removed later.

These are just my personal concerns about solar facilities because I’m already familiar with what the agricultural impacts can be. Plenty of other people have additional concerns as well.

But before I can really form a definite opinion on whether the good outweighs the bad or the bad outweighs the good on this topic, I have plenty of unanswered questions that I’ve never heard addressed in any of the hearings I’ve personally attended.

Those questions are as follows:

Why are solar facilities leased for a number of years (often 25 years or more) instead of permanent fixtures? How beneficial can they be for energy production if they only exist for a certain amount of time? What will fill the void when they are removed?

Who benefits from the energy production of these local solar facilities? Will anyone in the Roanoke-Chowan area receive lower electric bills due to solar energy production in the local area? (And if that answer is no, what is the incentive for putting these facilities here and not closer to the areas where the energy will be used?)

Who is in charge of enforcing the restrictions on local solar facilities (such as maintaining the panels and the land)? How often are they inspected? What penalties are in place for breaking these restrictions?

And lastly, is there a way to make this solar technology take up less space and be more beneficial to everyone impacted by it? (This one may just be wishful thinking on my part. But hey, we’ve had computers and phones get smaller and smaller as the technology develops, so why not this as well?)

If anyone has the answers to these questions, I’d love to hear them. I always think it’s good to have as much information as possible, especially on a topic that can have long-lasting effects on our community.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.