Here comes the sun

 

SANFORD — Amidst talk of Duke Energy relocating coal ash to Sanford, causing significant environmental concern among residents, two development companies have announced plans to build four solar farms in Sanford by the end of 2015 — projects that are expected to produce power, broaden the county’s tax base and provide other benefits to Lee County.

This week, Lee County Board of Commissioners and the Sanford City Council discussed applications by Dennis Richter, president of Solterra Partners, on behalf of Narenco Development and Solterra Partners, to rezone 12 lots containing 200 acres located south of West Garden Street and east of Fire Tower Road for the development of solar farms. Rezoning proposals still would need approval from both boards for the project to progress.

The combined 90-acre projects would produce enough electricity to power about 33,000 homes for about a year, which is about one-third of the homes in Sanford, Richter said. That equates, he said, to about 38.9 million pounds of carbon that wouldn’t be released into the atmosphere.

“That means that 33,000 homes don’t have to rely on electricity from some conventional power plant,” Richter said. “It won’t have to be burned, because we will provide it by solar.”

The property would be leased from local landowners for about 15 years with the possibility of later extending the lease. Richter said constructing the solar farm would take about two to three months, but there would be minimal maintenance and little to no noise afterward.

After the construction, Richter said the facility would need no additional city services like water and sewer, and no toxic materials would be emitted.

At Monday’s commissioners meeting, county staff addressed the tax implications of having a solar farm in Lee County.

Michael James, a management fellow with Lee County government, said the federal government gives solar farms a 30 percent tax credit, the state gives a 35 percent tax credit with some limitations, and solar farms have an 80 percent tax exemption on real property.

But April Montgomery, the chair of the Lee County Environmental Review and Advisory Committee, clarified that the 80 percent tax exemption did not include the land — meaning the county wouldn’t lose property tax revenues as a result of solar farms.

If anything, she said solar farms actually can increase the tax value of property because of the amount of equipment on the property and the utilization of underdeveloped land.

Commissioner Jim Womack said while he isn’t opposed to alternative forms of energy, he was worried about the cost to the county if a solar company shuts down because solar panels are not easily disposed of and the ground has been disturbed.

“There’s a huge cost factor in recovery if the company goes belly up,” he said.

Amy McNeill, Sanford land use planner, said if and when such companies decide to leave, they will be required to return the land back to its original condition, which includes plowing and reseeding.

Commissioner Kirk Smith was concerned that Duke Energy would raise costs to customers as a result of the power the company purchases from the solar farms, which is more costly. He said higher energy costs also could discourage big businesses from coming to the area.

But Montgomery said based on previous discussions with Duke Energy, she believes price wouldn’t be negatively impacted.

At a Tuesday council meeting, Councilman Chas Post was encouraged by the solar farm projects and the potential benefits that they could bring to Lee County.

“This sounds significantly better than fracking and coal ash.”

 

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