Shine a light: solar energy questions deserve answers

Published 4:45 pm Friday, July 5, 2024

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One of the first stories I covered when I started working for the newspaper in 2017 was a public hearing for rezoning in Northampton County. Specifically, the land owner was seeking to change the parcel’s Light Industrial zoning to Agriculture/Residential.

The reason? Solar facilities (also known as solar farms) are only permitted to be constructed in Agriculture/Residential zoned parcels, according to Northampton County’s zoning ordinance.

The Planning Board at that meeting recommended that the rezoning be denied as it could be considered “illegal spot zoning” since the surrounding parcels were also zoned Light Industrial. Several citizens who attended the hearing also spoke against the rezoning because they weren’t in favor of losing farmland to another solar field. The county commissioners back then followed the recommendation, and denied the rezoning. So, ultimately, the solar project couldn’t move forward.

It feels like solar energy becomes a hot topic of conversation every couple of years. Back in 2021, Northampton’s commissioners approved a moratorium to put a pause on permits for new solar facilities. After that moratorium, they amended the county’s zoning ordinance to include more regulations for solar developers to follow.

And in just the past few months, the commissioners approved more amendments to the county’s zoning ordinance which tighten regulations for solar facility construction even further. They also approved another one-year moratorium on permits for new solar facilities which will last through the end of June 2025.

To be clear, solar facility projects themselves don’t come before Northampton’s Board of Commissioners for approval. They’re in charge of rezoning decisions and putting regulations in place. But someone applying for a solar permit would simply go to the county’s Planning and Zoning Office, and if they meet the requirements, then they receive a permit to move forward with their project.

As I listened to comments during last month’s public hearing about the solar moratorium, it seemed like many people weren’t aware of that process. And why should they? If you’ve never wanted to apply for a solar permit before, you probably aren’t going to know how that happens or what’s required for approval.

I only know because I’ve been attending commissioner meetings since 2017, and have learned plenty about the subject along the way. (Though I am obviously not an expert.)

For the record, I’m actually in favor of solar energy. It’s a renewable resource since the sun isn’t disappearing anywhere any time soon. It’ll set tonight and rise again tomorrow, over and over again, outliving all of us. And plenty of energy sources we rely on these days are finite, so looking into other options is a way to plan for the future.

But I don’t particularly like the way the solar industry operates currently. Solar facilities here are often constructed on land that was previously being used for farming. Agriculture is one of the biggest economic drivers in our area (and in much of North Carolina), so the loss of farmland makes a detrimental impact to our local farmers (and by extension, the rest of the local agriculture industry).

And I understand the concerns of the people from the Gaston area who spoke at last month’s public hearing. They suddenly have hundreds of acres of solar panels surrounding their neighborhoods, and it probably feels like an encroachment on their community. Who wouldn’t be upset about rapid changes to the surrounding landscape with little or no notice ahead of time?

I personally would ask these solar companies to be more considerate when they decide where to put their solar fields.

A representative from the Center for Energy Education (C4EE), a nonprofit organization based in Halifax County, was also at last month’s meeting, though he didn’t get to speak during the public hearing. He addressed the commissioners later in the meeting, talking about the many benefits that solar projects can have on a community, and noted that there were several misunderstandings about solar energy that had been shared that evening.

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

We’re all working with a limited amount of information, trying to understand a complex issue.

It was suggested that some public forums be held in order to let people ask questions and have the opportunity to learn more about solar energy. I think that’s a fantastic idea, and I’m definitely putting those meetings on my calendar as soon as they are scheduled.

Here are some questions I think could be important, just so everyone can get a better idea about solar energy, how it works, and how it affects the local community:

How exactly does a solar farm generate energy? And how much does it generate per day?

Who benefits from the energy production of these local solar facilities? What power companies are buying the energy generated from these solar panels, and are those companies local? If not, why not put these solar facilities closer to where the energy is used?

What kinds of jobs are created by solar energy? What kinds of qualifications do people need to get those jobs? How many jobs does solar energy create locally?

Why do solar companies lease the land to build their projects? What is expected to happen at the end of those leases?

Who enforces the regulations on local solar facilities (such as adherence to setbacks and maintenance regulations)? What penalties, if any, are imposed for violations?

And lastly, are there solar energy alternatives (such as rooftop solar) available? Can solar energy be more efficient and beneficial without taking up as much space?

Perhaps those last questions are a bit too wishful, but hey, computers and cellphones have both gotten smaller as the technology develops. So why not solar technology as well?

I think it’s always a good idea to have as much information as possible. One thing is certain: solar energy will remain a topic of conversation for years to come.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.