With gasoline prices soaring and America’s energy future uncertain overall, facilities such as Mount Airy’s new solar farm represent the solution, an agricultural official from Washington said while visiting it Friday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development unit has become increasingly involved in the launching of renewal-energy sources such as solar, and the facility near the city’s wastewater-treatment plant could qualify as the “poster child” for that, she indicated.
“This is completely in line” with departmental goals, Judith Canales, administrator for the Business and Cooperative Service of USDA Rural Development, commented while gazing over rows of solar collectors there which have been producing electricity since last fall.
“The project here is an example of what we are encouraging to occur throughout the United States,” Canales added of the $5 million solar farm.
“Basically, energy is a focus for USDA Rural Development now,” explained Bruce T. Pleasant, director of business and cooperative programs for that agency’s office in Raleigh, who also was part of Friday’s visit.
“Solar has been one of the major types of technologies we support, but it’s not the only one,” Canales said, also mentioning such sources as wind turbines. “It’s pretty diverse.”
Canales flew in from the nation’s capital Friday to visit Mayberry Solar Farm and another alternative-energy facility at Lillington in Harnett County.
USDA Rural Development has made substantial investments in such projects — realizing the potential they have for powering America — with 8,000 launched in the U.S. since 2003, Canales said. Three years ago, solar development was greatest in the Midwest, but the Mid-Atlantic region has now become the hotbed, due to its climate and other factors.
The development of Mayberry Solar Farm last year became a reality due to the willingness of the federal agency to provide a $4 million loan guarantee for financing provided by Surrey Bank & Trust. This means the government would offset most of the loss if there was a default on the loan.
“Without the USDA guarantee, this project would not be here today,” said Tom Webb, a member of the bank’s board of directors and a longtime solar-energy advocate. Webb was also at the solar farm Friday along with other representatives of the institution, including President Ted Ashby, and additional bankers.
“It’s producing more than was projected,” Webb said of the solar farm’s electrical output, which goes right onto the Duke Energy power grid “Quite a bit more,” he added.
Another purpose for the Washington official’s tour of the Mount Airy facility Friday was to help draw attention to the way in which financial institutions such as Surrey Bank & Trust can play a key role in exploring “additional opportunities.” She also is trying to inform people about why such investment is important for energy production.
While that would seem to be a departure from the USDA’s traditional role of supporting agricultural production, there is a tie-in between farming and activities such as solar energy.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to add to a farming income,” said Joel Olsen, founder and managing director of O2Energies, a Charlotte-area firm that developed Mayberry Solar Farm on two city-owned sites near the wastewater plant which total 38 acres.
“Just look around you,” Olsen told the group of about 10 people Friday while gesturing toward an expanse of open countryside that was heavy into tobacco production in years past. Similar to the situation in the Midwest, solar farms provide an opportunity for former agricultural lands to have new, important uses.
Olsen also pointed to a site on a distant hillside, near Ararat Rock Products, where O2Energies is planning to build a much-larger solar farm later this year.
Both the location of the present farm and the one to be developed are “spoil” sites where rock and other debris were dumped over the years as the land sat unused. Transforming the city-owned site into a solar farm mainly involved grading the property to allow the solar collectors to be installed.
Unlike areas in the West where empty land is the norm, solar production in this part of the country involves energy being generated right where it’s needed to meet air-conditioning and other needs at their peak.
Olsen said the key to such alternative-energy development is the willingness of small community banks to provide investments of private capital to “a critical infrastructure.”
“You (community banks) are our biggest partner,” Canales told the banking representatives present Friday.
Olsen said this involvement has fueled a solar energy boom in Germany. In citing the instrumental role played by Surrey Bank & Trust, the O2 Energies official said he was able to readily meet with high-level officers of the firm who were receptive to the project.
“They get it,” he said of community bankers. “There’s not five levels of bureaucracy to go through.”
In addition to benefits to the farming and energy communities, further development of solar technology could stimulate the manufacturing sector. Webb pointed out that while materials for solar panels are produced in America, including silicon mined in North Carolina, the components must be shipped to Norway to make the collectors.
Solar technology offers promise for other employment opportunities as well, Olsen said while a persistent sun began shining through a mass of clouds that had been hiding it for much of the day — as if on cue.
“Surry Community College now has its own program,” he said of training opportunities in that field.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.