NC environmental chief backs restriction on solar farms, incentives for nuclear plants

Critics of solar energy are trying to rein in the industry by rewriting state laws, and the head of the state Department of Environmental Quality is leading the charge, pushing the state Energy Policy Council to recommend some major changes.

Posted Updated
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C.Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote about local ability to judge solar projects to Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart. That quote was actually by Carl Wilkins, a member of the Energy Policy Council. WRAL has corrected the error and expanded upon Wilkins' comments, which he said were based on community concerns.

The solar industry has blossomed in North Carolina since lawmakers granted solar farms tax breaks nine years ago as part of renewable energy standards that require utilities to get a portion of their power from renewable sources.

North Carolina ranks fourth nationally in solar energy capacity, and the industry employs about 5,600 people in the state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL, operates a solar farm near Garner.

Now, critics of solar are trying to rein in the industry by rewriting state laws, and the head of the state Department of Environmental Quality is leading the charge, pushing the state Energy Policy Council to recommend some major changes.

One proposal discussed Wednesday would require a state permit for any new solar farm. That would give the state the final say on whether a property owner can lease his or her land for solar. It would also require a bond for eventual removal of the equipment.

"We are a huge solar state, and we have to put our big boy pants on and treat it as such," Secretary of Environmental Quality Donald van der Vaart told the Energy Policy Council.

Brian O'Hara, senior vice president of Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar, said the state and other stakeholders have already drafted a model ordinance to help local officials negotiate. He said the solar industry wasn't consulted about the proposed state permit.

"We've learned lot as an industry over the last couple of years," O'Hara said. "We've grown dramatically, and there is a forum for looking at best practices around permitting, but I think that forum should include all the stakeholders."

O'Hara said the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, universities, county boards of commissioners and others should be part of the discussion about how future solar farms are developed.

Energy Policy Council members Herb Eckerlin and Carl Wilkins said a state permit could protect property owners from being taken advantage of by the solar industry.

Wilkins said they made the suggestion after hearing concerns that "these local jurisdictions lack the sophistication and the knowledge base in order to adequately judge the outcomes and the long-term impacts of these solar facilities."

"These people feel that they're not protected by the existing ordinances in place. It's a difficult situation for them because this is a new issue for them," said Eckerlin, a professor of mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University who established the Solar House demonstration facility on campus. "A lot of people say, 'I woke up, and there's a solar farm in my front yard.' There's a real concern on the part of the citizenry of eastern North Carolina."

A second proposal would redefine the state's renewable energy standard to include nuclear energy. The proposed "clean energy standard" would even allow incentives for new nuclear plants, which van der Vaart said are needed to back up less dependable sources such as solar.

"Simply recognizing that nuclear energy is clean and needs to be incentivized, that is what the renewable energy portfolio standard is for," he said. "This is meant to expand our portfolio."

Chatham County homeowner Sharon Garbutt, who lives 17 miles from the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southwest Wake County, told the panel she doesn't agree.

"If it's clean energy, why do they need sirens to warn people in the event of an accident at that plant?" Garbutt said. "The idea of nuclear energy being clean is ludicrous."

The Energy Policy Council delayed voting on the two recommendations after members voiced concerns about how the policy changes would affect the energy industry. They plan to tweak the proposals and and discuss them again at their next meeting in March.


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