Small town embraces solar – could Durham?

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 09:51 AM

Just over 100 miles from Durham, in Mt. Airy, are two solar farms.  One is on property leased from the city near its wastewater treatment plant.  The other is leased from a landowner who runs the local quarry.  The sites are both visible and welcomed by local residents who seem proud to have them as a neighbor.

The solar farms are owned by O2 Energies, a company founded and run by Joel Olsen.  Olsen is a North Carolina boy who grew up in Charlotte with Norwegian heritage, and it was in Norway that he fell in love with both his wife and solar energy.

“It took a lot to get it done,” Olsen says of locating his first solar farms in Mt. Airy in 2011.  But he credits the city of Mt. Airy with welcoming him and his solar panels and a lot of sheep with open arms. 

That’s right, sheep.  Lots of them.  A hundred lambs born just this spring.

Olsen’s concept marries sustainable agriculture and sustainable energy in a way that promotes private-sector investment in rural North Carolina.  You need flat land without trees for a solar farm.  With North Carolina’s climate, Olsen says he figures this state can produce two times more solar energy than Germany, which relies on solar energy more than any other country in the world.  The panels screw into the ground so the impact on the land is minimal.  But, in and around the panels, grass grows.  Lots of grass.

And that’s where the sheep come in.  O2 Energies works with Sun Raised Farms, training local farmers who bring sheep to their solar farms.  Sheep keep the grass in check to avoid the use of mowers, diesel fuel, and pesticides, giving local farmers jobs.  The lamb is sold to Whole Foods where you can even find it at the Wade Avenue store in Raleigh -- farm to table at its finest.

“The solar farm looks like a well-maintained vineyard with lambs grazing on green grass under the solar panels,” said Betty Ann Collins, who lives in a neighborhood near one of the solar farms in Mount Airy.

Local labor installed the farms and, because the workers put in two solar farms for O2 Energies, they are eligible to apply for an installer certificate.  Careers are being built for rural workers right along with the building of the solar farms.  O2 Energies works with the public schools system in the counties where it locates farms to incorporate sustainable energy into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum, and it also works with local community colleges to build work force programs.

Olsen says once people visit the farms, “they like this thing, no matter what their political stripes.”  He worries about efforts to undo Senate Bill 3, the 2007 law that allows him to sell the energy he produces to utilities like Duke Energy.  North Carolina is now the second largest market for solar installations in the country, and this past January , during the polar vortex, solar farms across North Carolina helped prevent a brownout in our state.  Gov. Pat McCrory supports solar energy, and dedicated June as “Solar Energy Month” in North Carolina, noting the importance to both the environment and the economy.

The most interesting facts I learned about solar farms?  The best cleaner for the panels is snow.  After the winter we have had, the panels glistened on the day I visited.  Other local companies are involved -- a Dupont facility in Fayetteville makes the back sheet of the panels and three local companies produce the glass encasing the cells.  Sunny, cold days produce the most energy.  Each panel is made up of 60 solar cells, and each panel produces 250 watts of electricity.  One of the farms I visited, appropriately named Mayberry, produces enough energy each year for 150 homes.  The environmental savings of just this one farm?  1.4 billion pounds of coal.  Olsen says that when we burn coal 10 percent of it ends up as coal ash.

After touring Olsen’s solar farms, I met with leaders of the Mt. Airy community -- presidents of local banks, the Chamber of Commerce, the public schools.  Unlike many rural communities across our state, Mt. Airy is not dying, instead it is thriving, in part because of its willingness to embrace these solar farms that power the region in many ways -- providing energy, jobs, and food. 

Olsen is interested in finding the right urban community in North Carolina to try on solar energy, to welcome him with open arms as Mt. Airy did.  I think Durham might be a good fit.

Mebane Rash is the director of law and policy for the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.