News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. State researchers say solar lobby silencing them

Heiniger and Eckerlin removed from government-sponsored forums when they questioned effects of large solar facilities on farmland

Tommy Cleveland, an official with the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, gives a presentation March 23 at the Moore County Cooperative Extension office. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Tommy Cleveland, an official with the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, gives a presentation March 23 at the Moore County Cooperative Extension office. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Ron Heiniger just wanted to be a farmer. He encouraged research to avoid solar industry encroachment on North Carolina’s prime farmlands.

But because of his academic study, the respected crop and soil scientist has become an unwilling poster child for anti-solar activists, vilified by the solar lobby, and chastened by his employer, N.C. State University.

“I’ve been called crazy. I’ve been threatened. My job’s been threatened. I really don’t want to advertise my issue very much anymore,” said Heiniger, who works at the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth.

Left unchecked, Heiniger says, replacing prime farmland with utility-scale solar projects could destabilize a fragile agricultural ecosystem. He warns about soil erosion, leaching contaminants, and ruining soil for future crop growth.

Heiniger and Herb Eckerlin, an N.C. State professor emeritus of the College of Engineering, said they were silenced by the university. Cooperative Extension agents across the state were ordered to cancel popular public forums they had arranged independently to discuss pros and cons of the state’s rapid solar growth.

State lawmakers have jumped in, asking university officials if they have stifled viewpoints that don’t align with those of the solar lobby.

Local officials, higher education watchdogs, and grass-roots observers question whether N.C. State’s North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center is a tax-supported lobbying arm of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association disguised as an academic pursuit.

Heiniger and Eckerlin had been working with county and municipal governments to understand the complexities of proposed large commercial solar projects. They were encouraged to launch a speaking tour for farmers and other interested parties at county Cooperative Extension offices.

“I vetted my materials through people in my department, and I’ve shared my slides to everybody who’s asked for them,” Heiniger said. “In the university I’ve had nobody argue against what my concerns are. In fact, I’ve had very many people in academics agree 100 percent.”

Neither Heiniger nor Eckerlin, who designed the Solar House at N.C. State, founded its Solar Center, and was instrumental in creating the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, oppose solar energy. They said they were interested in full disclosure about pros and cons so that government officials and North Carolina residents could make informed decisions about the renewable industry.

They were joined by Tommy Cleveland, renewable energy project coordinator at the Clean Energy Technology Center, on a panel at Fayetteville.

While Heiniger was driving to the event, Tom Melton, Cooperative Extension deputy director, called him and directed him to discontinue the series of scheduled forums. It was too late to cancel the Fayetteville session, but Melton eventually kept Cleveland on the panel, while replacing Heiniger and Eckerlin at future events.

“It wasn’t an unbiased, educational type meeting. It was a promotional meeting. It was an anti-solar meeting,” Melton said. Factually inaccurate information from the meeting was printed in newspapers, he said.

Melton said he invited Eckerlin to lunch and told him if he would stick to facts and omit “the flamboyant comments” he could remain on the panel.

Melton said he continued to be concerned after an event in Halifax that Eckerlin was “ignorant on the subject. He’s just Googling things and looking it up.”

The university and College of Engineering said Eckerlin was putting them in a bad light, according to Melton. To protect the university’s reputation and educational mission, Melton told county Cooperative Extension offices not to allow Eckerlin or Heiniger on their programs.

“It’s been a bit of a painful process for me,” Melton said. “I’ve been doing this job for over 30 years, and I’ve never asked for anyone not to be on a program.”

State Reps. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, and Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, asked university officials to account for the removal of Heiniger and Eckerlin.

“I’ve only heard one side, and even Solomon listened to both women. But I would be concerned if there was anything untoward about asking them to stand down,” Dixon said.

Richardson attended the Fayetteville event. He called it “without a doubt one of the most enlightening, refreshing, and important seminars I ever went to. I would encourage them, if there’s some reason they politically pulled that back, to not do that. … The university’s mission should never be to present one side.”

Melton said forbidding Heiniger and Eckerlin from taking part in the panel forums resulted largely from complaints by Cooperative Extension agents. Eckerlin said agents were eager to work with them to arrange the meetings.

Other complaints were registered by representatives of the solar industry, and the Clean Energy Technology Center, Melton said.

“The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association contacted the deans of the College of Agriculture, and told them to shut me down, to stop me from talking to anybody,” Heiniger said. “I’m upset that they’re using what should be the freedom of academics to push back against me.”

“I don’t want to embarrass Melton, and I don’t want to embarrass the university. But Melton [is] not representing the people of the state. He’s representing the solar industry,” Eckerlin said.



  • ProudlyUnaffiliated

    Well, this is what happens when you go up against the current dogma of “settled science” and all the righteousness that flows from it.

    • Ace

      There are certain “narratives” around sustainability, climate, and other progressive causes that one in academia either falls in line with, or gets their career and livelihood threatened – or ended. There is apparently no room (or time) for reasonable debate. These folks believe they are saving the world, and they’re not going to let anyone stand in their way.

      It’s incredibly sad that this is the state of much of higher education today. This is effectively a new religion for these folks. It uses only the science that supports its cause, and all other science is considered heresy. They’ve gained a critical mass of like-minded folks, and they will not stop until they have achieved their goals.

      • Marty Anderson

        Using only the data that supports your cause is not true science. This is the state of affairs in academia now.

      • ProudlyUnaffiliated

        Mostly right but it is important to understand the most crucial point — that the left has no end goals, only milestones that lead to new milestones. In short, they will never stop. Until they are stopped.

  • QuitBS

    NCSU, suppressing rights of expression? Like their free expression tunnel, only free if the militant Minority students agree with your posting, otherwise, no rights for you!

  • Mike G

    Google Map CMH Vending Svc … a business in Julian, NC. A friend lives by there. The business is not his. I don’t know CMH and they don’t know I’m posting this. All of that aside, look at the approx 30 acres NOT being used for farms. [I HAVE a 2.8 kW system on my home. Took the tax breaks. Same for solar heat. >>>>> AND alt/bio fuels.]

  • Barefoot1

    I guess the solar industry thinks we’re stupid or forgetful! Anybody remember Solyndra, and such failures from Obama?
    The solar power for homes can be possible of some benefit, however people need to understand what these panels are made from, is toxic chemicals and heavy metals! They are touted as ‘clean energy, but they’re anything BUT clean when their ‘end of life’ is reached! The panels WILL break down under such extreme heat and the chemicals will start leaking out under rain, poisoning the ground underneath. Most companies can barely afford the panels, and if govt. guidelines are followed, disposal becomes a concern! If honest cost studies are done, the industry will have to admit that solar power is neither sustainable (due to the breakdown of the panels) nor cost efficient!

    • Richard Button

      Not to mention that solar is NOT reliable. Companies like Google and Apple like to say they have or are building solar farms so that their computer centers are 100% powered by solar – that is a flat out lie. Oh, they may be bankrolling a solar installation that has a peak capacity equal to their facilities demand, but they buy from the grid so that they don’t have interruptions and then sell their solar capacity onto the grid. Problem is, there is not any solar output at night, during rain or snow storms; and there is reduced capacity during the winter months when the sun is not as high in the sky nor above the horizon as long as in the summer.
      Their NC solar farms take almost 500 acres of land and produce only 1/10 the capacity that a small nuclear facility does on the same amount of land. A greater difference is – the nuclear plant runs 24/7.

      • Dean Bruckner

        If the solar farms didn’t get “first sell” privileges mandated by government cronies, they could not survive.

        • Asadmoderate

          What are “first sell” privileges?

          • Dean Bruckner

            That’s my term (for want of a better one), but it means that if a solar farm has electricity to sell, it gets to send it to the grid even if other generating resources have to take generators offline to compensate, and even if they lose money. In effect, they are in a privileged position to sell electricity Others have to adapt to them, but they don’t have to adapt to others. Others have to suck it up if they can’t sell available power, but they don’t have to suck anything up except government subsidies.

          • Asadmoderate

            PURPA was passed in 1978. It requires entities that have government supported monopolies to purchase from qualifying facilities at the avoided cost rate. That’s one of the trade-offs for a company that gets to be a monopoly. CJO should be pressing hard to deregulate electric utilities in NC. Then, the market can decide. If you wanted, you could choose vendors that supply all solar. And someone else could choose a vendor that supplies all coal or nuclear. And pay on value, not just price. Further, it is not just solar that can be a qualifying facility. Many other technologies are allowed below a certain threshold, including co-generation, which is typically natural gas.

            Also, all QFs can be curtailed, even solar. If fact, just yesterday Duke Energy presented their solar curtailment plans to the NC Utilities Commission.

    • Asadmoderate

      Hi Barefoot – I’ve seen claims about panels breaking down and leaching, but I’ve not seen any studies or details on this. Can you share your source?

  • Herb McIntyre

    I can not say that I have seen any prime farm land go for Solar Farms. So far it seems to be pretty marginal land that really is no longer fit to produce a profit. But then again I am only looking at a portion of the State.

    • Asadmoderate

      Interesting point. I would be curious about the group’s thoughts about efforts to curtail a property owner’s ability to make personal and business decisions about the most effective use of their land. Is it really our place to tell a farmer that he must farm corn and may not farm sunlight, even if he can make more per acre from the sunlight?

  • Asadmoderate

    Hi Dan – I’m trying to get a grasp on this stuff and am hoping you can help with detail from your article. Some questions and requests below:
    Para 7: you mention a bunch of groups and officials without naming them. Can you name them so independent sources can verify?
    Para 9: you quote Dr. Heiniger as saying he has shared his slides and vetted through his department and that nobody at the university argued about his concerns and/or agreed 100%. Did Heiniger provide you with names in the University or Department who vetted the information and agreed with everything? Were you able to contact those people and verify his statement?
    Para 13: Melton says that factually inaccurate information was provided at the events and reported in newspapers. Did you request what that inaccurate information was and did he provide it to you? What was it? Did you verify independently?
    Para 23: Dr. Heinigar says that his Deans were told to shut him down. Did he tell you which Deans were contacted and did you verify with them?
    Thanks for your help on this.

    • Asadmoderate

      Nothing?

  • Photovoltaics is a one time, molecular erosion parlor trick that never creates 10% of it’s initial investment energy.

    “Green Prince of Darkness” at FauxScienceSlayer website on the actual life cycle analysis of these eco trinkets.