Can neighborhood opposition cool state's solar push? Experts think not

In 2006, solar farms in North Carolina were few and far between. Last year, the state added more solar power capacity, about 400 megawatts, than any state except California, according to a report from NPD Solarbuzz.   

A combination of tax incentives, aggressive renewable energy mandates and decreasing costs has driven the industry’s growth in the state. But now solar developers are facing something other fast-growing businesses have grown accustomed to: Some pushback from neighbors who worry about their property values.

Though solar industry insiders say neighborhood opposition to solar projects is not widespread, two recent high-profile cases have raised questions about the future of solar projects in suburban areas around North Carolina. In December, the Lincoln County commissioners voted 3-1 to deny Strata Solar a permit for a planned 36-acre, 26,000-panel solar farm near Lake Norman. The project abutted the Sailview neighborhood, where homes sell from $400,000 to more than $1 million. Hundreds of opponents showed up for the meeting and an earlier public hearing. The landowners, Gary and Denise Dellinger and Timothy Dellinger, have asked a Lincoln County Superior Court judge to reverse the decision.

In April 2013, the Laurinburg City Council voted 4-1 to reject a similar, 30-acre Strata Solar project in on the edge of town. Strata appealed, and Scotland County Superior Court Judge D. Jack Hooks reversed the decision in January. Hooks ruled that the city provided insufficient evidence that the project would substantially harm neighboring landowners' property values, says Laurinburg City Attorney William Floyd. The Laurinburg City Council and neighboring property owners have 30 days to appeal, Floyd says. Strata representative Blair Schooff declined to comment. 

Solar farms are large collections of interconnected solar panels that capture sunlight to generate electricity on a large scale. Solar farms tend to generate one megawatt for each five to seven acres of land, says Tommy Cleveland, an engineer and project coordinator at the North Carolina Solar Center at N.C. State University. N.C. law requires solar projects producing more than one megawatt to sell that energy to the area utility. So, solar farms seek sites with several acres of available land close enough to connect to the utility’s grid. This often means suburbs.  

N.C. Solar Center Model Ordinance

The North Carolina Solar Center has released a model ordinance for household solar panels and solar farms. To see it, click here.

The quick growth of solar power has left many counties and municipalities unsure of how the projects fit into their zoning ordinances. As of last summer, only 24 N.C. cities and 18 counties had specific solar development ordinances. The North Carolina Solar Center, consulting with planners, solar developers and others, published a model ordinance. The ordinance recommends setbacks and height limitations, but doesn’t address visual buffering requirements, says Cleveland.

Neighborhood opposition to solar farms tends to revolve around three issues – aesthetics, safety concerns and property values. In both the Lincoln County and Laurinburg cases, the solar farm’s potential effect on property values proved the main point of contention.  Aesthetic issues are subjective, and experts say safety concerns about glare and elevated electromagnetic fields are unfounded. But solar farms’ effects on property values are less clear.

It’s difficult to find sales data on subdivisions near solar farms because most are so new, says Greensboro real estate appraiser David Massey. Massey, hired by a Greensboro law firm representing solar companies, has testified at more than a dozen solar farm permit hearings throughout the state.

He says he’s working on research on property values within a subdivision near a solar farm in Goldsboro. For now, he relies on research on property values near other commercial and industrial uses. Research within a subdivision near a high-voltage power line found that homes where the line was visible sold for about 5 percent less than similar homes farther away. Another study found homes in a neighborhood across the street from an industrial park and mobile home park sold for about 3 percent less than similar homes.

“The premise is that a high-voltage power line is certainly more unsightly than a solar farm,” Massey says. “(A solar farm) is a responsible use of the land because it is a passive use. Once the farm is in, there’s only a truck going in and out once a month or maybe a little more to check on the thing. Certainly there are a lot of worse uses.”

Joel Olsen of Cornelius-based O2 energies, which has seven solar projects in operation and nine planned throughout North Carolina, says his company has seen more support than opposition.       

“When you think about what would affect property values, you think about something you can see, hear, smell, or something that has some other source of pollution,” says Olsen. “Solar farms don’t qualify on any of those. You don’t see it; you don’t hear it; you don’t smell it.”  

Other concerns include what will happen to the land if the developers abandon the projects.  Solar companies typically provide energy to the local utility company on 15-year contracts, says Cleveland, so most solar farms are long-term neighbors. In addition, site removal is inexpensive.

“It’s just a matter of pulling equipment out of the ground,” Cleveland says. “You’re talking about some fairly small-diameter PVC pipe. There would be a fairly minimal cost and a fairly high salvage value of the materials that are left.”

“What a solar farm really does is, long-term, help preserve open land,” says Olsen.

Lincoln County and Laurinburg are only two rejected cases in a state where dozens of solar farm projects were approved last year. They probably won’t be the last. In all, though, experts say neighborhood opposition is not likely to slow the industry’s growth.

“I think (neighborhood opposition) will continue to be a fairly minor issue as far as the industry is concerned,” says Cleveland. “It is an emotional issue. As (solar farms) get to be more common and people get more comfortable with seeing them all the time, the issue will fade.”