CCEBA and CICE partnered to host a webinar on May 16th discussing how communities and solar can work together for maximum benefit. The session featured CCEBA Director, Chris Carmody, Maggie Sasser, VP of Government and External Affairs at Pine Gate Renewables, and Josh Bass, President of the Currituck County Chamber of Commerce. We were excited to bring together these different perspectives—on both the business/development side and from a county with numerous solar projects. 

The webinar discussed the following key topics; read on to explore panelists’ feedback on each.

Trends/Trajectory Of Solar Deployment

  • Solar is trending toward fewer, larger projects versus the numerous but smaller projects of the past decade
  • Though solar is growing, it doesn’t take as much land as other developments like residential construction, golf courses, etc.
  • Communities are building more trust and faith in the solar industry now that there are more projects on the ground, more information, and more resources available among local governments, Chambers of Commerce, and others who have engaged in the solar development process.

Developer Perspectives When Placing Solar

  • Developers need access to high-voltage transmission and plenty of flat, dry land, and must stay away from sensitive cultural resources, state land, etc.
  • Developers must to engage with the community well in advance of the project and execute comprehensive community outreach. It doesn’t work to just show up at a permitting meeting—it’s important to know community stakeholders, know the community’s values, what the land is like, cultural history etc. 

“Make sure that communities share in the benefits.”

– Maggie Sasser, on key advice that should be included in a playbook for utility-scale solar development

What Communities Look For When Considering Solar Development

  • It’s essential that developers engage early with communities and build strong working relationships with local government, the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits, etc. Chambers in particular are at the intersection of government and business and will offer a great pulse on the community, elected officials, and other important stakeholders.
  • It’s also key to have a designated point person who is the relay point between the community and the developer; with this person in place, the county will always know who to reach out to (and vice versa) if there are any issues.
  • Companies who are doing a good job with solar/community engagement will focus on hiring local workers and investing in the community in more ways than one.

“Listen well and answer honestly.”

– Chris Carmody, on key advice that should be included in a playbook for utility-scale solar development

How NC Solar Investment Can Benefit Rural Areas

  • Solar helps apply downward pressure on energy prices that may otherwise be more volatile. 
  • Solar is a low-cost, high-yield activity for rural communities—it uses underutilized area without bringing on new costs that other land uses may need. For example, new residential may require installing new sewer services, or building a new school. But solar can generate up to 1,000 times the property tax base for a parcel of land with much less infrastructural investment.
  • Solar construction will bring new money to the community as workers buy food, lodging, and other resources during the building process.
  • Solar land use is also temporary—the land can be easily restored back to its original condition, unlike with other types of development.
  • As farming grows more unpredictable, landowners can use solar to generate a stable income and funnel more money into community economies. 

“Talk to your local chamber first!”

– Josh Bass, on key advice that should be included in a playbook for utility-scale solar development

Solar Implementation

  • The onus is on the developer to educate a locality about the benefits they might receive, the safety of a project, the development process and construction timeline, worker hiring, etc. Communities should always ensure that the developer is giving them this information up front—if not, it’s a red flag.
  • Developing solar has a lot less moving parts than other types of development; it’s a good, safe practice for zoning boards and county commissions in a rapidly-changing energy landscape.
  • Rural communities often face skepticism around solar, so it’s important to make sure that rumors are addressed and benefits are communicated properly. Centralization on the developer side is key—a point person providing information and up-front engagement—but communities should also utilize resources that help build trust. For example, Currituck County has leveraged the NC State Cooperative Extension Center to learn about agricultural benefits, mitigate aesthetic issues, and combat conspiracy theories. 
  • The new NC decommissioning law is helping to balance jurisdiction of developers, local governments, etc. It’s much easier now for communities to engage around how solar projects look and what will happen at project end of life. 
  • Rural communities often struggle to find a balance between growth retaining rural character. Solar can help retain that identity, as it helps preserve the land in such a way that the landscape isn’t being fully converted to something else (i.e. housing).