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OUR VIEW

Pasquotank solar project apparently has benefits

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

President Trump appears to be all but declaring a trade war with tariffs and threats of tariffs on foreign goods. Other nations, in response, have retaliated with tariffs of their own on American products, including on agricultural products such as the farm commodities that local farmers depend on for their income.

While we hope a full-on trade war can be averted, the current international disagreement only exacerbates the fragile, year-to-year market conditions that plague growers here and across the country. Each growing season has become more rife with risks for those invested in agriculture. From price swings affected by international harvests and varying weather conditions, to now, a possible trade war, farmers are left with few choices if they are to protect their livelihood and their family’s financial security.

Even before Trump's talk of tariffs raised the potential of another hit to farmers, many Albemarle growers had been taking the more predictable income-producing option of leasing their land to solar and wind firms. The result has been solar farms sprouting like corn across the region. And, of course, the Amazon Wind Farm is one of the largest wind energy operations in the country.

In addition to the production of green energy for the nation, these passive, energy-producing operations have given farmers and other landowners more ways to leverage their properties' value. Yet, not surprisingly, as the renewable energy economy has grown, so have efforts to put limits on how land can be used for energy production.

For the most part, that reaction is necessary to ensure the public's best interest is being protected. But there have been misguided and politically motivated actions taken as well by some just wanting to slow the spread of solar and wind operations. For the public, it's important to separate the two.

The latter does not seem to be the case with the current business before the Pasquotank County commissioners, who are studying a proposed, large-scale solar farm in the "desert" area of the county. The hush-hush project — the commissioners met on June 18 with the unnamed firm that wants to develop the farm — would include about a 3,500-acre site near the Amazon project's wind turbine farm.

The scale of the development makes a full review by the commissioners necessary. Before such projects can move ahead, the county should be conducting a due diligence study on impacts on people, environment, future transportation projects, and so forth. In fact, commissioners imposed a two-month moratorium on new solar farms as a way to give them time to review the proposal. It also allows the county to enact specific conditions and rules that may be needed.

Among those being considered, county planners are recommending a ban on solar farms in the area known as "the desert" and a general 200-acre limit on solar farms. It's uncertain why such restrictions would be necessary, since there's plenty of available land. We'd urge commissioners to avoid arbitrary rules and size conditions, unless they can also identify and justify specific, harmful conditions the rules are intended to prevent. So far, we are unaware of any.

Nevertheless, following their June meeting to get a full picture of the proposal, commissioners seemed generally impressed and supportive.

Board Vice Chairman Bill Sterritt said he's “interested in seeing the project go forward,” calling it a potentially "great thing for the county, the community."

Others were similarly impressed. Of the commissioners who responded to The Daily Advance on the matter, only commissioners Lloyd Griffin and Frankie Meads had specific reservations, and neither expressed opposition to the project. Griffin's main concern was personal, that he hated "seeing farmland being converted to glass panels."

Griffin's sentiments are not uncommon. Yet, for generations farm land has been converted to other uses — for homes and subdivisions, malls and roads, business and industry and recreation. Green energy is now part of that transitional process.

Meads' focus was on economics, claiming farming the land would bring "more economic benefit ... than putting solar panels on it." But on that, he's likely to get some push-back from farmers who are converting their property simply because of the economic benefit it brings to them.

Despite having reservations, both commissioners did not oppose moving forward, which seems to signal some agreement that the solar project, at least from what we know now, is worth a further look and support.

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