Editorial: Consider opportunity cost for Gold Hill solar farm

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 24, 2021

In a matter of weeks, the Rowan County Planning Board could be faced with zoning decisions about a massive solar farm in the Gold Hill area.

They should make sure to consider the benefits of such a development in addition to the resident concerns they’ll surely hear.

Those resident concerns will include talk about the solar farm’s effect on the ability for pilots to leave and land at the Gold Hill Airpark. Questions will likely also include where pilots should land in case of an emergency.

Residents will certainly speak about the development consuming about 560 acres of undeveloped land, turning valued green spaces into a sea of solar panels. Besides changing the community’s character, there appear to be concerns about ruining a historic designation, too.

Mixed with those concerns will be details about how the development fits within the county’s newly updated rules for solar farms. Those rules include significant screening requirements, setbacks and the creation of a decommissioning plan. After nearly two years of work, the county created a good set of guidelines for large and small solar farms.

Opportunity cost also should be among the considerations.

Rowan County, including the rural Gold Hill area, is unlikely to shrink in population in the next decade. About 372 people live in the Gold Hill area, according to the 2020 Census. Depending on the speed of population growth, that number could be 1,000 by 2030. A solar farm will not halt growth, but it will consume a large track of land that would otherwise be the site of new neighborhoods, businesses and traffic. It could be a landing spot for a new Dollar General.

Meanwhile, stopping solar farm development will only be a temporary pause. Others will seek to build in rural, southeastern Rowan County. Depending on zoning, they might be able to do it without appearing at public meetings.

Solar farms are quiet, generate little traffic and require relatively little in the way of public services while providing a significant benefit in taxes. They generate clean electricity, which will be much-needed as the Charlotte region and North Carolina continue to grow.

Landon Abernathy, who works for the development company Birdseye Renewable Energy, said as much during a community meeting in June.

“We’re low. We’re quiet. We don’t cause a lot of traffic. We increase tax revenues. We don’t cause additional emergency response, seats on school buses, a typical draw on county resources,” Abernathy said. “I really think there’s a real argument here that you’re blocking off this land for the long term for a use that is low-impact.”

That’s not toeing a company line. It’s telling the truth, particularly if developers can address concerns about glare for Gold Hill Airpark’s pilots.