This spring has brought more solar farms than flowers to fields around Scotland County, and more will soon be on their way as the county takes its place in what is quickly becoming a trillion-dollar industry.
Brian Bednar, president of Birdseye Renewable Energy, spoke to the Laurinburg Rotary Club this week and dispelled a few of the myths associated with the solar farms they may have noticed in their travels around the region.
“I would pass this beautiful field and pasture with crops growing or maybe sometimes cows grazing - now it’s full of something metal or it looks like metal and we understand they’re growing electricity out there,” said Rotary Club member Charles Buie of Birdseye’s new site on Highway 74. “There’s been a lot of talk about it - somebody said it’s a new way of growing chicken.”
According to Bednar, the drive toward producing solar energy began in 2006 with a bill in the N.C. Senate.
“Basically what Senate Bill 3 said was that in North Carolina, the utilities companies will start generating an increasing amount of electricity from renewable resources - pertinent to this area, biomass, chicken litter, wind of course which is a tough resource to use in North Carolina, and of course solar,” Bednar said. “In general, it’s a resource protection move: what’s the long-term fuel availability of the main resources we have, water and air quality, volatility of pricing in light of foreign interests and energy sources.” Although solar’s popular uses are relatively new, the technology has been around for decades.
“The beauty of solar is that it’s a tried-and-true technology,” Bednar said. “Albert Einstein won his Nobel Prize for figuring out that when sunlight strikes certain substrates, it frees an electron, so in the case of a solar panel, a photon, which is energy from the sun, strikes crystalline silicon, knocks loose an electron, which is then channeled down the wires and becomes electricity… It’s a pretty straightforward technology, we know how it works, and it’s been worked on since the early days of the space race.”
Bednar said that, with global competition growing and costs of solar energy production declining, research indicates that solar energy will be a $1.2 trillion industry worldwide within six years. The Highway 74 project, in operation since April 30, delivers energy directly to Progress Energy’s grid. It is contracted to do so for 20 years.
“We hope that we can basically have it generate electricity long-term with minimal maintenance,” said Bednar.
Bednar said that, when searching for sites to build solar farms, he tries to select areas with little agricultural potential.
“Ideally I try to find sites that may be sandy where the highest and best use is another use like solar,” he said.
Birdseye held a job fair recently, hiring 82 employees to build farms in Maxton and Rowland. Now that the company has a local corps of trained employees, there will be more projects to come to Scotland and the surrounding counties. “In general, we wanted to pick a spot where we could do a multiple set of projects where we could sort of build an industry in an area,” Bednar said. “In addition to Maxton, Rowland, Raeford, and St. Pauls, we have a project coming up very shortly in Shannon and another project off of 401 South. When we start training folks, we want to put them to work and keep them busy for a while.” Those who find that their properties neighbor a solar farm have nothing to fear from radiation, according to Bednar.
“When the industry first started, that was a concern, but it doesn’t generate any radiation at all,” he said. “The racks are made out of aluminum and galvanized posts, the panel itself is basically an aluminum frame, an aluminum backsheet, silicon, which is the same as a computer chip, the wiring is basically aluminum and copper, and a tempered glass front sheet. It’s a lot of straightforward industrial type metals. There are no batteries on site or acids of any kind.”
Once solar farms are completed, minimal on site maintenance is required, as production is monitored remotely. Bednar anticipated that the Scotland County sites would require little more than quarterly visits to check electronics. “In this region, we get enough rainfall here that we don’t anticipate needing to really wash the panels,” he said. “We put sheep on my project in King’s Mountain as a means to maintain it. It’s an easy way to not have to have someone go out there with a weedeater.”
Bednar said that Birdseye’s goal is to make its solar farms as inconspicuous as possible.
“It’s most visible from 74 - you can go over the overpass and see it, of course,” said Bednar. “The nice thing is that they sit low - when you drive by 74 it’s a little misleading because you’re looking down on it. But they’re only about seven and a half feet tall, so it’s pretty easy to just tuck it away, especially in a place like Laurinburg where everything is so flat.”