The Person County Board of Commissioners heard a proposal for an 80 megawatt solar farm northwest of Hyco Lake at its meeting Monday night, but made no decision on the matter.
Instead, the commissioners noted their satisfaction with the county’s current solar ordinance, which they approved last February.
The county’s ordinance categorizes solar projects by size and caps the largest at 100 acres measured around the exterior perimeter of the panels, among other required setbacks and zoning restrictions.
Harrison Cole with Cypress Creek Renewables presented a potential project Monday night.
Before the presentation, board chair Gordon Powell noted that the board would not take action on the presentation.
“This is a presentation only for consideration and no action will be taken on any request here tonight,” Powell said. “We don’t want any misunderstanding on what we’re doing.”
Cole said Cypress Creek Renewables is proposing an 80 megawatt solar project northwest of Hyco Lake.
The total project area is proposed to be 1,250 acres, of which 380 acres would be used for solar panels.
Two local landowners are under contract, Cole said.
“The landowners just want to make use of the land and be able to provide long term assets to their family,” Cole said.
Over its 40-year lifespan, Cole said the project would generate between $5.4 and $7.2 million for the county’s tax base.
The project will provide for more than 100 construction jobs initially and a “handful” of permanent jobs, according to Cole.
Cole said two or three employees would work in an office space on the premises to monitor the project daily.
Outside of tax base contributions, Cole said the company strives to impact communities with scholarships and other workforce development contributions.
Cole said up until 2018, Duke Energy capped its purchases from other solar projects at five megawatts produced by between 20 and 30 acres of panels.
After some state law changes, developers utilize a competitive procurement process in which they bid their project to Duke which are selected by lowest cost.
“That is, there is no cost passed on to the ratepayers from our projects,” Cole said. “It really allows cheap projects to come online and supply power.”
Person County is an attractive location for solar projects due to the transmission lines serving the power plants on Hyco and Mayo lakes.
“The good thing is there is limited capacity on transmission lines and when we’re going through the study process with [Duke Energy], if there are any upgrades that are needed, Duke will let us know and we have to fund those ourselves for the project to come online,” Cole said. “There is some amount of additional capacity that can be added, but not an infinite amount for Person County or any county.”
Despite seemingly at odds, Cole said Cypress Creek Renewables has no opposition to the current coal-fired power plants in the county.
“We have no dog in that fight,” Cole said. “We’re here to do our project. If those plants stay online, that’s fine. If they go away, that’s not our fight. We can work in harmony with those existing plants. We’re not taking away their energy or their ability to do business there.”
Cole noted that the company would comply with the county’s vegetative buffer requirements to hide the panels completely from the right-of-way and the county’s decommissioning bond requirement.
Cole mentioned that the project would not currently be allowed, but said a text amendment to the solar ordinance could be passed to allow for larger projects.
If an amendment is passed, Cole said the board would have future input through a potential rezoning or special-use permit process.
Asked about that process, County Attorney Ellis Hankins said a text amendment to the ordinance would be considered by the commissioners, like any other legislative decision.
Commissioner Kyle Puryear said he would be happy if there were no change to the ordinance.
“I think the board worked pretty hard on establishing the new ordinance and I’m very happy with it – take that for what it’s worth,” Puryear said.
Hankins said the North Carolina Utilities Commission’s recent Carbon Plan has “significant mention” of alternative energy sources, including solar.
Hankins said he has been told multiple times that the county’s “relatively restrictive” ordinance is not an obstacle to future generation at the two Duke Energy coal plants in the county, and added he would inform the commissioners if that changes.
Asked after the meeting about their thoughts on the ordinance, Powell and vice chair Derrick Sims said they remain committed to it.
“Personally, I support where we’re at right now,” Sims said. “If this has some negative impact on Duke Energy, certainly I’d like to know about it and for them to voice that to us because we want to keep Duke Energy here. What you hear in this county and in our meetings is mostly that people are against the large solar farms and I get it – people don’t like seeing them.”
Sims added that the projects do not create many permanent jobs.
“With that ordinance, we have listened to the people and to me, that’s what it’s all about,” Powell said. “It is a two-edged sword, so to speak, with pros and cons, but I think we have listened to the landowners. “
Powell said the ordinance keeps with the county’s Future Land Use Plan’s goal of celebrating the county’s rural character.
“I think this board is sensitive to the public and their concerns and we hear both sides – from the landowners who want to put in a project and we listen to the landowners around that project,” Powell said. “It’s a two-edged sword but, generally, I think we are responding positively to the public’s comments and doing the right thing.”
Three individuals spoke on the solar issue during the board’s informal comment period Monday night.
Dan Oldman of Chapel Hill identified himself as a Republican member of U.S. House District 4 and spoke in favor of the project.
Person County Republican Party vice chair Jimmie Whitfield and Paul Lynch each asked the commissioners to follow the current solar ordinance.
On the future of Duke Energy in the county, Powell told The Courier-Times that county leadership’s most recent meeting with Duke Energy representatives at the end of January was positive.
“I don’t think they really know how they’re going to achieve what they’ve been directed to achieve,” Powell said, referring to the carbon reduction goals placed on the company. “The best news I’ve heard in the last month is that Person County has been heard and Person County is being considered. They are saying that generation will continue in Person County, but they’re not saying in what form. All of those are encouraging words to me and us, but it is an ever-changing target. That’s when they talked about Person County’s place at the table. In the last one, we had the head person in North Carolina and she was pretty much along the lines of what I’m saying. Also something that they were saying was, ‘we want to be where we’re wanted.’ That was a comment and they think that Person County wants them here and I said, ‘yes absolutely Person County wants you here.’ We want to maintain that relationship. I was encouraged by that.”
The commissioners’ meeting is available in full at youtube.com/c/PersonCounty.
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