City Council approves $10 million 37-acre solar farm

SALISBURY — Salisbury City Council approved a $10 million, 37-acre solar farm off N.C. Highway 150 but will require the developer to add a 600-foot evergreen buffer to block the panels from a neighbor’s property.

Strata Solar plans to lease land on Randy and Marcia Reamer’s 200-acre horse farm near the intersection of Sherrills Ford Road and N.C. 150 for about 20,000 solar panels, each the size of a piece of plywood. The solar farm is one of several in the works across Rowan County, including an Argand Energy project in the 1300 block of Redmon Road and O2 Energies’ planned solar farm between Rockwell and China Grove.

Margaret Gurgul, who lives next to the Reamers, offered a long list of concerns during a quasi-judicial hearing at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. A lawyer for Strata Solar cross-examined Gurgul, which City Attorney Rivers Lawther confirmed was a first for City Council.

Reading from a variety of articles including one titled “Death by Solar Farms,” Gurgul said she was worried about everything from hurricanes and hail damaging the panels to health problems caused by the electromagnetic field. Because she drinks well water, Gurgul said she was concerned about toxic chemicals from the solar farm seeping into the groundwater.

But Strata officials said the Salisbury farm will contain no hazardous substances and create no pollution. The only lubricant used in the equipment is the equivalent of vegetable oil, said Brent Niemann, a civil engineer with Strata.

Niemann and attorney Susanne Todd also pointed out the Strata farm will use different technology than used in the examples cited by Gurgul, and the panels are monitored remotely 24 hours a day via the internet.

“If one breaks, we fix it,” Niemann said.

Strata changed the angle of its panels by 45 degrees – from facing south to facing southwest — after city staff raised concerns about possible glare as pilots are landing at the nearby Rowan County Airport.

An independent study showed that at 5 p.m. for about one hour six months out of the year, pilots who look over at the solar farm while landing a plane could see a glint or glare that could cause an “after image,” officials said.

In response, Strata changed the angle to avoid any glare, Todd said. It was the first time anyone has raised the glare issue with Strata, which has been in business since 2009.

“We appreciate them looking at it,” she said. “It was a good call.”

Chapel Hill-based Strata is the sixth largest solar development firm in the country, company representatives said. Strata has built 50 similar farms, including two in Davie County, and sells the renewable energy to Duke Energy.

Last year, North Carolina was the second largest statewide photovoltaic, or PV, solar market in the United States, despite the near-total lack of a residential market in the state. The company starts construction on a new solar farm once a week.

Strata has about 1,000 employees across the state, mostly construction workers. At each project, about 80 percent of the workforce comes from the three-county surrounding area.

During the 45-day construction peak, between 50 and 100 construction workers should be on site in Salisbury.

Strata employees said in 20 years, its farms will still produce 85 percent of the energy they generate on day one. The company expects its farms to operate for about 50 years.

The solar farm is expected to generate not only energy but about $30,000 a year in property tax revenue, without a demand for services like water, sewer and schools.

On average, the farm in one year would generate enough energy to power 700 houses.

Several City Council members said considering recent problems with Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, they are eager to see alternative forms of energy developed.

“I am totally in favor of the solar farm,” Councilwoman Karen Alexander said. “I think that we need to continue to find ways to maximize alternative energy sources.”

Nearby property owner Bill Owen also raised concerns about the solar farm but said they were satisfied by Niemann.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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