My June 9 post on solar farms (“Destroying the Environment to Save It”) discussed the world’s largest solar farm – a 3,600 acre project in the Mojave Desert.  Little did I suspect that two weeks later the place I live – Guilford County – would be a “finalist” for one even larger.

             I say “finalist” with quotation marks not to indicate a direct quote but to suggest doubt with a pinch of sarcasm.

             A new company in Melbourne, Florida called National Solar Power has just listed Guilford County as one of seven locations throughout the Southeast where it might locate a mega solar farm at least 4,000 acres in size (either as one tract or several tracts).  It would be the largest solar farm in the world.

             I read it first in the Triad Business Journal which noted 1) this county doesn’t have 4,000 contiguous acres or even 20 tracts of 200 contiguous acres 2) the company says tax credits and incentives are key BUT nobody at state or local levels had even heard of the company or the project, 3) it won’t create but a handful of long-term jobs, yet tie up 4,000 acres, 4) the only possible buyer of the electricity – Duke Power – knew nothing about it, and 5) they went to the media first, indicating either a total lack of sophistication and experience or that something else was going on (which I’ll discuss below).

             A more subtle – but to me a far more interesting – comment was made in a July 2, Greensboro News & Record editorial where the paper questioned whether this “industrial” use would gobble up land that should be reserved for industries that would hire more people, saying “Solar farms might be better situated in a different place than land that a manufacturing plant might need – near a highway or the airport, for example.”

             Here’s the rub.  Why would a solar farm – inherently an industrial use – be relegated to the areas and zoning districts reserved for industry?  In fact, they should not.  Solar farms require wide open spaces, and they generate practically no traffic, noise, dust and any of the other qualities we link to industry.  They could be located off country roads with little access to highways and airports.

             But a planning department proposing a zoning ordinance text amendment to enable the use might think too narrowly, allowing such uses only in “industrial” districts.  But if the open land is truly rural, a challenge could be made on the basis of spot zoning.

             Two more points.

             First, land sprawl through out-in-the-country subdivisions is a problem.  While I challenge often-made claims that these subdivisions are replacing “farmland” as opposed to non-farm open and rural land, I tend to agree with those who acknowledge the growth problems than with those who don’t. 

             A solar farm, in my opinion, would be a better way to preserve open land than a low density residential subdivision.

             Second, here’s my interpretation of this news release.

             I accept the company’s statement that incentives and tax credits will play a major role in its decision.  It’s the only point they made that makes any sense to me.

             But incentives have no rationale if the company has already announced it is coming and it is looking at no other places.  Therefore, companies occasionally establish a “straw man” location to create the appearance of competition so that representatives in their desired location will sweeten the incentive package.

             My experience suggests that National Solar Power has chosen not one but at least two and possibly a distant third location. While it is considering engineering and other feasibility matters it is negotiating aggressively with those local and state officials, the local power companies, landowners and building contractors.  And in each discussion they can tell a county or a landowner that they are considering seven – 7 – locations, so they should not be stingy with incentives or greedy on land price.

            In that respect, Guilford County was just somebody’s poor choice to add to the faux list, and now the company looks like what it truly is, a neophyte in the area of development and local government incentives.

 Coming Up Next

             I recently wrote an article for the magazine SML Perspectives on technology as a driver of land use norms.  Because 1) I discuss solar farms and 2) I make points that at least rhyme with some of the points here, my next post will be a reprint of that article

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