In April 2021, Duke Energy and Wells Fargo announced an agreement that would allow the financial services company to buy all of the power generated at a 58-megawatt, 600-acre solar farm planned in Catawba County.
Wells Fargo said at the time that the project would supply more than half the electricity for its 7.5 million square feet of facilities — supporting 36,000 employees — within the Duke Energy Carolinas service area.
It was the next green-economy development in a county where Apple already was powering its data center in Maiden with 58 megawatts from solar arrays.
The partnership was hailed as a model for how large companies like Wells Fargo could reduce their carbon footprint by making a one-time, major commitment to clean energy.
A little more than a year later, elected officials scuttled those plans.
It was a unanimous vote from Catawba County commissioners in late April to reject a rezoning request that ended the promise of the project.
People are also reading…
The decision contradicted the county planning board’s recommendation to approve the project, and came after speakers expressed their opposition.
It was the latest in what clean-energy advocates say is a growing wave of opposition to solar and wind projects in North Carolina similar to what they’ve seen in other states.
Like many modern movements, this one is being driven largely through repeated arguments — often rife with misinformation — on social media, said Susan Munroe, deputy director of Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy, a national organization that works with local entities to promote wind and solar power.
“It’s very rarely grassroots opposition formed at the local level,” she noted.
One of the common anti-solar refrains was raised at the public hearing for the proposed Catawba County project: that fields full of panels are ruining rural areas and occupying land better suited for farming in a state where agriculture is the leading industry.
That argument misses the mark on multiple levels, Munroe and other advocates insist.
A soon-to-be published report by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, in conjunction with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, found that wind and solar facilities occupy 0.2% of prime farmland in North Carolina.
The Sustainable Energy Association also found low-density housing developments now take up 4% of former farmland in the state.
“In a lot of counties, utility-scale solar projects are the largest source of tax revenue,” spokesman Matt Abele said, “which is very significant for rural counties across the state that have struggled to keep up with the cost of building roads and schools. So (solar) provides a whole new revenue source they didn’t have.”
The keep-it-rural approach ignores another reality, Munroe insisted: Landowners — including farmers — have the right to develop their property.
“For some farmers, selling or leasing land for solar is a way to keep the farm in the family,” she added. “And in many cases, they’re only selling or leasing a portion of their farms.”
That income can go toward funding the farm’s operations, new equipment or even buying more land, Munroe said.
And because solar arrays aren’t permanent, they actually preserve the property for future farming if the owner decides to get rid of the panels.
“If you put in a housing development, that land is gone,” Munroe noted.
Solar farms also require little or no new infrastructure like roads or water and sewer service that residential, industrial and commercial developments often do.
As more companies develop plans to reduce their carbon footprints and corresponding contributions to climate change, they’re incorporating sustainability across their entire operations. That will include decisions on expansions and relocations, Munroe insisted.
“They’re going to want to expand in an area that welcomes the same kinds of values,” she said. “What kind of message does it send when county commissioners reject a solar project? It’s important that local governments aren’t picking winners and losers in economic development. It sets a dangerous precedent.”
In addition to denials of projects locally, at least four North Carolina counties — including Davie — have instituted moratoriums on new solar farms, Abele said.
State policy and the desire by solar developers to get a return on their sizeable upfront investments have driven the growing size of new arrays.
“You’re seeing bigger fights,” Abele said, “because of the size of these projects.”
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.