top of page

Help us protect agricultural-forestry zoned land from large, industrial-scale solar developments

Solar Times Blog

By Herb Eckerlin

The generation and distribution of electrical energy is a complicated business. Most people don’t give it a lot of thought. For example, if the light switch works, they move on. If it doesn’t, they panic and call the local power company.

…But what if “not working” becomes a regular occurrence, what then? This question may become more common in the future.

Solar power is intermittent and not reliable. Therefore, with a 100% solar system, the light switch will only work some of the time. Is that acceptable? Are our fellow citizens aware of this liability? People have to be informed of this liability.

Where does the electricity come from?

Most of it is generated at plants powered by fossil fuels (like natural gas and coal) and nuclear energy. Smaller amounts of power may come from hydro, solar and wind.

Where it comes from is of little concern too many, the more important question is, “Will the light switch come on?”

Local utility companies like Dominion and Duke Energy have the responsibility to generate the power and deliver it to your switch. We have come to expect it.

But, with intermittent solar power, this is often not the case.

Electrical power is generated in large central stations (also called power plants) rated in Megawatts. A 900 megawatt plant is not uncommon. It has the capability of generating 900 megawatts continuously, all day long (24/7).

The point here is this: Natural gas, coal and nuclear plants are reliable …. They can deliver 900 megawatts at any time of day or night. That cannot be said for a 900 megawatt solar plant. It can only deliver 900 MW for one hour at noon on a sunny day. That’s a huge difference.

Dr. Eckerlin has over 60 years’ experience in the energy field, including experience in electric power plant operations (with VEPCO – now Dominion Power), electric utility boiler design, and solar research and design. In 1987, he founded the NC Solar Center to promote solar energy in all its forms across the United States. He is now retired and is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University.

Any views or opinions represented in this blog are for informational purposes only. They are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in a professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, or organization, company, or individual.

This process (the website and blog) has been an eye-opener. I was happy and ignorant until one of these large-scale projects was proposed in my front yard.

I had no idea that Data Centers were such incredible energy hogs as read in Forbes. Power consumption by data centers appears to be a never-ending growth industry for electric utilities. In 2017, it was estimated that global Data Centers used about 416 terawatts of electricity (3% of all electric consumption). Back in 2013, U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants.

This consumption was expected to increase by over 50% by 2020, equating to over 50 giant 500-megawatt power plants. This would equate to about 156 square miles of solar panels (It takes about 4 acres of solar to produce 1 MW of electricity. There are 640 acres in 1 square mile. 4 acres x 500 MW x 50 plants / 640 acres.) This is the equivalent of almost 7 Manhattan Islands of solar panels just to power Data Centers in the U.S. (Manhattan is 22.82 square miles.)

It seems like it is time to put the Data Center hogs on a diet to curb rural industrial-scale solar projects and resulting habitat destruction.

If you are faced with the appearance of start-up or established solar permitting firms, you may want to ask them and your local officials a lot of questions. They will promise the community a lot. When you look up, they are gone and everything they promised is gone as well (or simply never materializes). Examples of some questions include the following.

If the applicant is a limited liability company – who has ownership interests in the LLC?

  • Is it corporations, individuals, other LLCs?

  • How long has the LLC been in business?

Has the company ever constructed a solar project?

Does the company have sufficient capital to construct and operate an industrial-scale solar project?

Has the company every managed a solar project?

Has the company ever had to decommission a solar plant and return the site to pre-site conditions?

Why does the company always lease and not buy the project land?

In what solar project-related litigation has the company been involved?

If the company plans on selling its permit before construction begins or before it takes on project management, why should the company’s representations be believed if it isn’t going to be the party responsible for following through? For example:

  • assertions that the project will hire locally, as far is practicable (what does this even mean?);

  • assertions regarding maintenance of the property or landscaping to shield views; or

  • assertions re remediation.

  • What ongoing responsibilities will the initial permit holder have?

  • Exactly what type of solar panels will be installed?

Will the installation be able to withstand hurricane- and/or tornado-force winds?

What insurance of reserves will be maintained for clean-up and reconstruction if destroyed by high winds or fire? (If the project is abandoned prior to its expected life will sufficient site remediation funds be available?)

What will be the impact of site construction on the community?

  • What noise level will be generated by pile driving solar mounts?

  • How many mounts have to be driven in and how long will this take?

  • How many hours a day and how many days a week will construction occur?

  • What sound and dust barriers will be erected?

  • How will water runoff from the site be managed?

  • What impact will construction noise, debris, and traffic have on local business, work-at-home residents, or proposed or pending real estate transactions?

  • How many trucks and trailer loads will be traveling on roads?

Which roads will be impacted?

Will the company repair roads on an as-needed basis to prevent inconvenience to local residents?

Who will monitor project water quality and construction-related conditions?

How will truck and construction traffic impact school children and school buses?

How will the company pay for decommission/remediation?

  • What amount of funds needs to be set aside and when?

  • Will the company provide a durable letter of credit?

  • Any assumptions regarding salvage value of materials in determining remediation costs should be rejected.

  • Who will monitor to insure conditions have been met?

…and questions for the planning commissions and boards of supervisors

How does this project fit in to the town or county’s comprehensive plan?

Has the town set any limits as to the size of any project or projects in total?

What benefits are there for the community? More affordable power? Tax savings?

How many more rural industrial-scale solar projects are planned?

Is the town or county mandating berms and trees to block view of the solar site?

How high will berms need to be?

What is required height of the trees when planted and when mature? Having to wait half the life of a solar project for trees to be tall enough to block view of the project doesn’t protect surrounding homeowners.

Who is responsible for replacing plantings around the site when buffer trees die?

Have planning and board members visited other large-scale solar sites?

How is it green to destroy miles of open land and habitat, releasing carbon trapped in trees and the soil, and paving the landscape with non-oxygen-producing panels?

What potential unintended consequences could the project have?

  • loss of habitat by clear-cutting and paving square miles of land with solar panels (including the loss of Audubon and state-designated IBA land),

  • blocking river access for wildlife by fencing giant tracts of land, decreasing water quality and problem run-off,

  • destruction of culturally sensitive areas, and

  • destruction of town character impacting tourism?

Full disclosure as to who on any approval board or commission has a financial interest in promoting rural industrial-scale solar projects – including family members.


Help us protect agricultural-forestry zoned land

bottom of page