A postcard led to roughly 300 acres of solar panels on Chris Barnhill’s land in Bladen County.
Barnhill, a fourth-generation blueberry farmer, recalled the postcard asking if he had a high-voltage power line on his property, and if he’d be interested in leasing some of his land for solar development. Now, about nine years later, the land has been cleared and is leased to Cypress Creek Renewables.
“It’s just amazing that you can take sunlight and make electricity from it,” Barnhill said. “That’s awesome.”
As large solar farms continue to blossom across North Carolina, local officials and members of the General Assembly occasionally express concern that their installation means the loss of valuable farmland. A report released last week by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association shows that there are 703 solar systems that generate at least a megawatt of power installed in North Carolina.
The systems that are built on cropland or pastures or in evergreen forests total 31,125 acres — 0.28% of the state’s agricultural land, according to the Sustainable Energy Association report. A similar report in 2017 found 341 large solar systems in North Carolina covering 9,074 acres — 0.19% of the state’s agricultural land.
Jerry Carey, a market intelligence specialist with the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, was one of the report’s authors. He recalled having a difficult time showing less than a third of one percent on a bar chart because it is such a small number.
“It’s not even a blip on the radar. So that’s what we’re trying to say and just back up the facts with real data rather than hearsay,” Carey said.
Solar developers prize farmland because it offers open space near high-voltage power lines, often on the outskirts of cities.
Harrison Cole, a senior project developer for Cypress Creek Renewables, estimated that a majority of the company’s projects in North Carolina are built on farmland or timberland.
“It’s kind of passive income so that they can support their families and future generations as well as another income stream in case they want to retire from the farming life,” Cole said.
When Cypress Creek starts a project, Cole added, the developer “typically” hosts a meeting for residents near the site to address concerns. Those meetings often include concerns about light and noise pollution — Cole said there generally isn’t any — from the solar farm that’s coming.
“It is a long-term lease, up to 40 years for these projects, so we want to make sure that we’re being good neighbors,” Cole said.
While working as an attorney for Strata Clean Energy, Ajulo Othow saw how that investment should impact rural communities. Othow, who had previously worked in rural development across the Southeast, put those observations into action in 2019 when she founded EnerWealth Solutions.
The company focuses on designing solar projects that benefit rural residents, particularly Black land owners or people with smaller farms. EnerWealth’s pilot projects were in Halifax and Northampton counties in northeastern North Carolina.
“Clean energy investment was some of the most significant investment that many rural counties have seen in decades, and I wanted to, to whatever degree that I could, influence that investment so that it could sort of do more in those rural communities,” Othow said.
Several of the farmers Othow worked with were growing older, with their children or younger family members uncertain about pursuing a career in farming. At the same time, the landowner wanted to keep the property.
Some were leasing their land to other farmers to grow soy beans, tobacco or cotton. But those leases didn’t offer anywhere near the $750 per year per acre Othow said they earn by working with EnerWealth, with the solar agreements spanning at least 35 years.
“That is long enough to allow them to pass that land from one generation to the next and also to generate enough income so that there’s savings and wealth creation,” Othow said.
Othow also sees the carbon reduction targets set out in last year’s House Bill 951 as an opportunity for the state’s agricultural communities. That legislation requires Duke Energy to submit to the N.C. Utilities Commission a plan that would see it reduce carbon emissions 70% from 2005 levels by 2030, with the state’s largest power generator reaching net zero by 2050.
‘Maximum profitability’ without headaches
In Bladen County, Barnhill remains deeply skeptical about climate change. He readily acknowledges that temperatures are growing warmer and that snow doesn’t fall in winters like it used to, but he attributes it to climate cycles more than man-made global warming.
Still, Barnhill is openly excited about the benefits solar energy offers him and other farmers. His uncle just installed a solar farm of his own, and Barnhill routinely gets call from other blueberry farmers who are interested in putting panels on their land.
He is particularly intrigued by the potential for battery storage to provide power during periods when the sun isn’t shining as frequently, saying, “It’s going to be awesome.”
The solar panels sitting in the middle of woodlands where Barnhill used to hunt for deer and turkey now offers revenue diversification.
Over the last seven years, Barnhill said, labor costs and keeping up with regulations have cut into his profit margin. One year, a hail storm wiped out the entire crop.
Despite those and other uncertainties, the check from Cypress Creek comes every month. And it will for the duration of the 40-year lease.
“I look at it as the maximum profitability with the least amount of headaches,” Barnhill said.
Like many farmers, Barnhill’s children are pursuing careers that don’t involve the family farm. But Barnhill’s cousins are poised to become the fifth generation of his family that will grow blueberries on the land.
Barnhill hopes they keep the solar panels, possibly even beyond the initial 40-year lease.
“If they get it rid of it, they’re crazy,” he said. “And I don’t think they’re that crazy.”
This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
This story was originally published July 5, 2022 1:29 PM.
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