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Solar farm near Rockwell could double as classroom one day

ROCKWELL — Someday, Rowan-Salisbury Schools students could have a new science class about solar energy that culminates with a field trip to a solar farm in their own backyard.
Cornelius-based O2 Energies, which plans to build a 4.5-megawatt solar farm on Earnhardt Road near Rockwell, is developing a six-week science course in partnership with Surry County and Mount Airy city schools, company President Joel Olsen said. The company hopes to implement the course in the 2014-2015 school year.
The Rockwell facility would be O2’s 11th solar farm and represent a $10 million investment and $2 million boost to the local tax base. O2’s planned solar farm is one of five proposed for Rowan County. All have received local government approval but await details like interconnection agreements with Duke Energy and financing.
Solar farms have no noise, no smell, no pollution and use no water to generate power, Olsen said.
“We see them as incredible assets, and they can help a planning department and economic developers attract companies that are looking to locate near green energy,” Olsen said.
Apple, SAS and QVC all have built solar energy farms in North Carolina. Not only is using solar energy good for the environment, but it’s also a good public relations move, giving companies bragging rights about being green.
Large companies considering an expansion often ask about the “power mix” at potential sites. A community that can say renewable energy like solar feeds into the distribution system may have a leg up on the competition for new investment and coveted jobs.
Compared to a traditional coal power plant, a solar farm will offset carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change, and sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain, Olsen said. Solar energy also offsets nitrous oxide, which causes smog, and mercury, which makes drinking water unsafe, he said.
In one year, a 6.3-megawatt solar energy farm would save 1.2 million gallons of water that would be required to run and cool a coal power plant, Olsen said. Solar farms also generate no waste, unlike the coal ash created by coal power plants.
North Carolina came late to the solar energy industry but has caught up quickly and is considered a national leader, Olsen said. North Carolina was the 29th state to put clean energy requirements on utilities but the first in the Southeast.
As a result, North Carolina jumped into the top five states in terms of solar energy deployment, Olsen said. The job growth in the solar energy industry since 2007 has been nearly 1,000 percent, he said.
As the sector grows, North Carolina and potentially Rowan County will be able to attract manufacturers that make the components of a solar farm — the panels and racking systems — as well as companies that make transformers and inverters.
“The more consistent of a market we have for this new industry, the more manufacturers we will attract to our state,” Olsen said.
School children who may visit O2’s Rockwell solar farm one day would also get a lesson in agriculture and livestock. The planned lawn maintenance crew at the facility is 150 head of sheep.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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