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Currituck planners table new solar rules

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Andy White (center) a representative of First Solar, answers questions from the Currituck County Planning Board during its meeting in Currituck, Tuesday. At left is Jim Martin, also with First Solar, and at right is Harrison Cole, representing Cypress Creek Renewables.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Thursday, October 11, 2018

CURRITUCK — The Currituck County Planning Board has tabled consideration of proposed regulations that would again allow solar farms to be built in the county.

During Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting, Chairman Fred Whiteman and board member Steven Craddock both said they have questions they want answered before the board takes action on new regulations allowing construction of new solar projects. Whiteman led a unanimous vote to table the proposed new rules.

Prior to the vote, solar energy representatives told the board the county’s proposed new solar regulations are too strict.

Currituck Senior Planner Tammy Glave said the proposed new regulations are the result of a directive from Currituck commissioners to reintroduce solar as an allowable zoning use in the county. In January 2017, commissioners imposed a 60-day moratorium on approving future solar farm projects before imposing an outright ban the following month.

The ban does not affect two solar farms — one adjacent to the Ranchland subdivision near Moyock and the other on N.C. Highway 34 across from Shawboro Elementary School — that had already been constructed. The ban also doesn’t affect a third solar project in Grandy the N.C. Court of Appeals said the county had to allow to proceed. 

Glave said her department is recommending approval of the new regulations because they’re designed to prevent solar projects that are incompatible with their area and that can adversely affect county residents’ quality of life.

Under the proposed new rules, a solar farm would be allowed in areas zoned for agriculture, but no more than two abutting properties could be used for a solar project. Proposed solar farms would also be limited to no more than 250 acres or half the acreage of the property as it existed when the project was approved. The latter means that on a 1,000-acre site, only a 500-acre solar farm could be approved for construction.

All panels, equipment and associated security fencing for a solar project would be have to be set back 300 feet from a major street right-of-way and 150 feet from all other N.C. Department of Transportation street rights-of-way and property lines. There also would have be a 100-foot setback from N.C. Division of Coastal Management-designated navigable waters, federally or state designated wetlands and significant natural heritage areas.

Also, construction of a solar farm would be limited to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. If the site of a solar farm is within 1,500 feet of a school, no pile driving work could take place while the school is open.

Prior to the start of construction, a specific type of opaque buffer or an earthen berm has to be built and it has to be as tall as the project’s tallest solar panel. Also required are monitoring wells near the center of the solar farm site and along each exterior property line at its lowest point of elevation.

The proposed new rules also address the decommissioning of solar farms. Under the proposal, the solar farm owner would have to post a performance guarantee to ensure the site is returned to its condition prior to the solar farm’s construction. The performance guarantee would have to be equal to 115 percent of the estimated cost of decommissioning and would not allow for reductions based on salvage value.

The solar farm's owner also would have 12 months to complete decommissioning if no electricity is generated at a site for 12 straight months.

Responding to the new regulations, Jim Martin, representing First Solar, the nation's largest solar panel manufacturer, said the 250-acre cap, the setback restrictions and the 50 percent limit on ownership will cause "serious issues" for the economics of a solar project.

Martin said today’s solar industry is being driven by large customers such as Amazon, Facebook and Walmart. He said the industry is responding to that demand by building larger solar farms to take advantage of economies of scale.

"We're seeing solar farms that are built 80, 100, 150 or 200 megawatts in order to respond to the needs of the marketplace," he said.

Martin noted there's a 500-megawatt solar farm in development in Dominion Energy's service territory to serve customers that include Microsoft.

He said although Currituck's proposed new rules allow two neighbors to join together to host a solar farm, his company has to have multiple projects to make them cost effective. Also, when First Solar signs lease agreements with local landowners, those landowners know they're making economic decisions for their families for decades to come, he said.

"And we don't feel like it's fair to limit their ability to reap the benefits of a project that might be sited on their farm by limiting the amount of land that can be used," Martin said.

He also expressed concerns about the proposal's limits on construction times, saying craft labor is hard to attract. He noted his company frequently has to work six 10-hour shifts just to attract the type of workers it needs.

He also said the decommissioning rules would penalize his company because it wouldn’t be able to include a solar farm’s salvage value in its costs.

Andy White, also of First Solar, said solar panels have been tested, are safe and meet both American and European standards. He also said First Solar is not aware of any groundwater abnormalities caused by his company’s solar projects.

Harrison Cole, representing Cypress Creek Renewables, said solar projects use a lot of metal and valuable materials. He asked the board to consider allowing the salvage cost of those materials to be counted toward the performance guarantee. Cole noted one of the major materials used in solar farms is aluminum, which has a lot of salvage value.

Whiteman said his questions about the new rules include concerns about what solar panels are made of. He also wanted to see details from a groundwater test at a solar facility site, so that he could see what experts are looking for.

Planning Board member Steven Craddock said testing is a good way to confirm whether any contaminants have been emitted or leeched from solar panels’ supporting structures.

Craddock said, however, he has a beef with the proposed limit on the maximum size of solar farms and the restriction against combining more than two lots or parcels for a solar farm.

"That is not logical," he said.

Craddock said he's also concerned about restricting solar farm builders to a five-day workweek when most people in the construction trades also work on Saturdays.

Responding to a question about the five-day workweek restriction, Glave said that was the Planning Department’s directive from county commissioners. Planning and Community Development Director Laurie LoCicero said residents, particularly in the Ranchland area, said construction on the solar farm there on weekends negatively affected their quality of life.

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