Solar project gets board’s go-ahead

Apr. 22, 2014 @ 09:36 PM

An Arizona company obtained permission from Durham’s Board of Adjustment on Tuesday to erect a solar-power array in the northern part of the county off Red Mill Road.

Sunlight Partners’ project will occupy a vacant, 50-acre parcel near Falls Lake.

A company vice president, Keith Colson, said Sunlight has an agreement with Duke Energy to supply Duke the electricity it needs to meet state clean-energy mandates.

“Our project, we believe, is good for the environment,” he said.

But it did have an opponent Tuesday in Jacqueline Thorpe, who told the board she owns about 35 acres just to the south.

The Thorpe property is mostly vacant, save for a cabin, and is used primarily for recreation, hunting and fishing.

Thorpe said she worries the neighboring solar array would take away from the appearance of the surrounding area and hurt the value of her property.

“My conclusion is I will have to discount it a lot if I were to sell it down the road,” she said.

Colson and his lawyer, Nathan Duggins III, were ready for that argument. They brought along an appraiser, Rich Kirkland, who said his research hadn’t turned up any evidence of solar projects lowering the value of adjoining property.

A “solar farm” next to a subdivision under construction in Goldsboro didn’t seem to have any effect on the market for the new homes, lots in the subdivision next to the array selling for the same prices as those farther away, Kirkland said.

“That really makes sense,” he said. “There’s no traffic to speak of, no hazardous materials on site, no emissions, really nothing there for you to talk about other than the appearance. And the appearance is clearly not affecting anything in the matched pairs I’ve looked at.”

Duggins added that Sunlight Partners is “certainly willing to provide additional” buffering along the property line to hide the panels from the Thorpe property.

Board members before voting unanimously for the permit posed only a few questions, focusing mostly on the expected life span of the array and the possibility it could become a target for metals thieves.

An engineer with N.C. State University’s N.C. Solar Center, Tommy Cleveland, told them the array’s panels have a 25-year warranty guaranteeing they’ll hold most of their power-generating capacity.

Equipment that converts their output into alternating current suitable for transmission to the electrical grid doesn’t last as long, but can be switched out as needed, he said.

As for the theft issue, Duggins said the company will install fencing, security cameras and other systems to deter thieves.

He added that given the rural locale, it would require “a very targeted strike” from criminals who more typically work in urban areas.

The array’s wiring will mostly be buried underground, Cleveland added.

Media reports from elsewhere in the state indicate that Sunlight Partners is busy on solar-array projects in several other North Carolina communities, working in places like Alamance County.

For bulk-power generation, it’s building relatively small facilities that put out 5 megawatts or less of electricity.

The state’s best-known solar array, which helps power an Apple Inc. data center near Maiden, is a 20-megawatt design. 

By comparison, Duke Energy's Shearon Harris nuclear energy plant is a 900-megawatt facility.