Friday, March 16, 2012

Solar Farms on Henderson County Agenda

In two weeks, Henderson County commissioners could approve amendments to the county’s Land Development Code that would allow solar energy generation facilities, or solar farms, to operate throughout the county.

The county Planning Board unanimously approved the changes at its meeting last week, and Planning Director Anthony Starr will recommend commissioners do the same when the matter comes before them during a public hearing on March 5.

Currently, the county’s Land Development Code allows only solar panels as an accessory use for a residence or business, while the proposed text amendment would allow solar farms of 30 acres or less in all standard zoning districts as either a permitted or special use. Those larger than 30 acres would not be permitted in Residential 1 and 2 zoning districts; they would require a separate public hearing by the Zoning Board of Adjustment for approval and would be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to Starr.

“I doubt that Henderson County will see the large solar farms that you see in the Midwest where they’re a hundred acres,” he said. “There just really aren’t any sites that are suitable in Henderson County for that kind of development. We can’t rule that out (as a possibility), but from what I’m hearing you’re likely to see smaller solar facilities — 10 to 20 acres or smaller.”

Starr said the changes could bring new development opportunities to the county, and that development costs for such solar farms are estimated to be about $4 million for a 1-megawatt facility.

“So that’ll be a pretty good tax base,” said Edneyville landowner Tom Pace, who filed the application for the text amendment in January.

Pace said he and his wife, Marcia, recently purchased farmland along U.S. 64 East from Marcia Pace’s father and they were renting out about 30 acres for agriculture, including 10 acres to a corn grower. However, the revenue from that rental was “just barely paying the county taxes,” said Pace, who then saw an eye-opening advertisement about rental fees for solar farm use, “and it was about 10 times what we were getting for corn.”

Discussions ensued between the Paces, Starr’s department and John and Richard Green — owners of Innovative Solar Systems in Asheville — about changing the laws to allow solar farms to operate here as they do in Buncombe County. Starr pointed out that the Kimberly-Clark Berkeley Mill manufacturing plant — which in 2010 announced it had partnered with Duke Energy to place 361 ground-mounted solar panels on 10,000 square feet of mill property — is within Hendersonville city limits.

John Green said the prospect of building a solar farm in Henderson County is a “win-win” because of the availability of agricultural land here for Innovative Solar Systems and the company’s desire to not only increase the tax base but also pay competitive wages.

Still, Starr said he will encourage commissioners to consider not one particular project that may or may not happen, but rather “all potential future projects.”

Either way, Green said his industry will be the key in meeting a state law passed in 2007 that requires utility companies generate at least 12.5 percent of power from renewable energy sources by the year 2021.

“Right now we’re only at about 3 percent, so as you can realize, we’re 9 percent off in nine years on how much alternative energy has to be added within the state of North Carolina,” Green said. “And most of that is probably going to have to be solar, because there’s really not that much that you can add for either hydro or wind mills — the state of North Carolina is just not that great for wind turbines like out West. So really, solar, in my mind, is going to be where the majority of the alternative energy has to be made up in the next nine years to meet the state mandates.”

Starr said the Planning Board acknowledges there are potential concerns from residents, and that the draft text amendment provides a series of standards for potential solar farms to address those concerns. They include height limits for both ground- and roof-mounted systems, a 20-foot perimeter setback, 6-foot-high security fencing and vegetative screening where a solar facility would be adjacent to residential uses.

Starr added that one particular concern that seems to come up often with solar facilities is that of glare of sunlight off the solar panels. He said his department did plenty of research on the subject and determined the worries to be unfounded, since the panels are designed to absorb solar energy and that any reflection of sunlight would represent lost energy.

The text amendment also doesn’t allow for solar facilities to be built in the flood plain.


No comments: