A Small Town's Solar Ban Heard Around the World

by | December 15, 2015

By John Murawski

Usually what happens in Woodland stays in Woodland, a town 115 miles east of Raleigh with one Dollar General store and one restaurant.

But news of the Northampton County hamlet's moratorium on solar farms blew up on social media over the weekend after a local paper quoted a resident complaining to the Town Council that solar farms would take away sunshine from nearby vegetation. Another resident warned that solar panels would suck up energy from the sun.

As outlandish as those claims seem, town officials say the Internet got it wrong.

It would be foolish to conclude that all the town's residents have an aversion to solar energy, said Ron Lane, who has been on the Woodland Town Council for two years. In the past year, Lane noted, the town approved zoning changes to accommodate a trio of solar major solar farms, one of which is nearly completed.

Woodland simply got too cramped for a fourth solar installation, he said.

"How would you and your family like to live in the middle of a solar farm, surrounded on all four sides?" said Lane, a retired elementary school principal. "We have approved three solar farms on almost three points of the compass. This would have completely boxed the town in with solar farms."

For Woodland's elected officials, the viral response to the solar blackout became a crash course on the power of social media. The mayor and two council members had just been sworn in to office Dec. 3, the day the solar farm came up for a vote.

Woodland, a town of some 800 residents, is only the latest to experience a public backlash against the state's solar renaissance.

Friction over solar farms has become more pronounced as North Carolina's rapid solar buildout has catapulted the state to fourth place nationally in total solar power output. North Carolina today has more than 1,000 megawatts of solar capacity online, equivalent to a nuclear plant if all the solar panels were generating electricity on a cloudless day.

In the past few years, about two dozen solar farms around the state have become targets of public ire, usually over aesthetics and property values. Facing local hostility, several of these energy projects were voluntarily withdrawn by the developers, said Daniel Conrad, a staff attorney for the N.C. Utilities Commission.

The resistance often flares up in areas that have become magnets for solar farms -- agricultural communities with cheap farmland near electrical substations where solar farms can interconnect to the power grid, said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center.

But the state's remarkable transformation of soybean fields into rows of indigo panels is also alarming some agriculturalists. In a Nov. 30 letter to the state's extension agents, N.C. State University crop science professor Ron Heiniger warned that the rapid spread of solar farms "may well be one of the most important agricultural issues of our generation."

Heiniger's call-to-arms, reproduced in at least one local paper, predicts that solar farms could shift land use to such an extent that "it is highly unlikely this land will ever be farmed again." Heiniger also denounced solar energy as a government-subsidized boondoggle that is "highly inefficient at producing energy."

Strata Solar, the Chapel Hill company that had proposed the solar farm in Woodland, attempted to appease the Town Council's concerns by increasing setbacks and making other modifications. The company hopes the project can be revived and built some day, said Brian O'Hara, Strata Solar's senior vice president of strategy.

If not for the handful of public comments about solar farms stealing sunshine, Woodland's solar moratorium would be as obscure as other local fights over solar farms. Instead, Strata Solar spokesman Blair Schooff said the company is "getting calls from all over the planet on this one."

By Monday, the story was trending on Reddit, DailyKos and The Huffington Post as well as the United Kingdom's Independent and the Hindustan Times in New Delhi, India.

Lane, the Woodland councilman, said the town has received profanity-laced voice mails and enraged emails from people around the country.

Ultimately, he said, the Strata Solar project was not doomed by irrational fears. The photovoltaic panels were proposed just 50 feet from residential homes, and the project was too close to State Route 258 leading into town.

"We're not opposed to the solar farm itself, just that particular location," Lane said. "We wanted to make sure they didn't overtake the town."

(c)2015 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)