CURRITUCK, N.C. - Currituck County officials have imposed a two-month moratorium on building solar farms over concerns raised about the largest array in the eastern United States already underway here.
Residents have complained to county commissioners about a 2,000-acre site under construction in Moyock that will be filled with the mirrored-glass panels.
Fears have arisen over safety if a hurricane or tornado began blowing broken glass from the panels around. Critics worry about possible toxic material contained within – the solar company, Ecoplexus, says there is none. Solar farms take up wide swaths of fertile farm fields.
“We’ve made some errors,” Currituck County Commissioner Mike Hall said.
Currituck has approved two solar farms, the one in Moyock and another in Shawboro. Commissioners last year denied a permit for a third in Grandy.
Ecoplexus appealed that decision. A hearing was held in Currituck County Superior Court last month and officials await a decision.
The Moyock solar farm under construction stretches nearly 2 miles across the countryside. The county required a 300-foot buffer from adjacent neighborhoods of Ranchland and Wildwood Acres, and earth berms to block the views.
Steve Fentress and his neighbors sided with the county in denying the Grandy project, hired an attorney and joined the appeal process. Their homes were built around a golf course that would become the solar farm, and they worry about falling property values and worsened drainage.
Fentress, a retired contractor, said he found that a local ordinance forbids energy production and brought it to the attention of commissioners. The county’s land-use plan does not allow energy production, but is unclear about what kind of energy.
After studying plans, Fentress said he believes the solar panels will fall apart eventually. A windstorm could scatter shards of what might be toxic glass, he said. He proposed an amendment to the local ordinance.
“I’m saying ban them entirely,” Fentress said. “Currituck and other counties in the area have had the wool pulled over their eyes.”
Ecoplexus counters that property values will not fall and flooding will not increase.
Former commissioner and land owner Owen Etheridge spoke against the moratorium in last week’s meeting. A company is interested in his family’s Shawboro property, he said.
“What is the imminent danger of these solar farms?” Etheridge said. “There is none.”
Crop prices are down, making solar farm offers more enticing, he said.
But solar panels are a bad use for fertile farmland like that in Currituck, said Ron Heiniger, a professor of crop science for North Carolina State University.
“That’s hard to replace,” said Heiniger, who works out of the Vernon James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth.
The Currituck County Planning Board and staff recommended approval of the Grandy project. They cited benefits such as renewable energy and tax revenues.
The $250 million project in Moyock, called Wildwood Solar, could generate enough power for more than 10,000 homes and will be the largest east of the Mississippi, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. At 120 megawatts, the solar farm also would add approximately $300,000 annually in county taxes and create 10 to 15 permanent jobs.
North Carolina is second in the nation for solar power production, according to the association. Arrays have gone up rapidly in eastern North Carolina where there is lots of relatively cheap, open land in a sunny climate.
Currituck is a prime location, prompting officials to look closer at approving solar farms.
County officials will consider changing the development ordinance over the next 60 days, but how is still in question, Hall said.
“We want to make sure we’re making the right decisions for the county,” Hall said.