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Rowan County’s Gold Hill fights plans for massive solar farm

Birdseye Renewable Energy solar project in Monroe, NC, near Charlotte. (image from birdseyeenergy.com)
Birdseye Renewable Energy solar project in Monroe, NC, near Charlotte. (image from birdseyeenergy.com)

In the 1820s, a gold rush brought people from across the state to Rowan County to try to strike it rich. Now, energy companies are coming for much the same reason: To cash in by building solar farms.

The latest example comes in the small community of Gold Hill, where a Charlotte energy company is seeking approval for a massive solar farm on what is now a natural forested area. Neighbors are fighting back against the plans, saying they would irreparably change the character of their town.

The project is the brainchild of Birdseye Renewable Energy, a subsidiary of Charlotte’s Dominion Energy. The company has submitted plans for a 560-acre solar farm near Old Beatty Ford Road and U.S. 52, about 15 miles southeast of Salisbury. 

The company plans to lease four plots of land for their solar farm for an initial term of 20 years, with an option to renew. 

But people who live nearby question the wisdom of clear-cutting this natural area and turning it into a solar panel parking lot. 

“It’s going to be difficult to hide such a monstrosity,” said John Ritchie, a resident of the Gold Hill Airpark neighborhood, at a rally against the project. “Welcome to Rowan County.” 

The Gold Hill solar farm proposal is one of the latest in a rush of solar projects proposed across North Carolina. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that solar companies have poured more than $10 billion into North Carolina, with an annual energy output ranking the state No. 3 in the country. 

This development is largely attributable to the administration of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has strong-armed energy companies into sourcing more of their electricity from solar energy. The result of such policies is higher energy prices, which strain family budgets.

Rowan County has been of particular interest to solar energy companies. Several solar farms have already been approved for the area, but not yet begun construction. The county Board of Commissioners put a moratorium on solar farm development in 2019, after facing intense opposition to a 400-acre solar farm proposed for western Rowan County. 

This moratorium ended in April after commissioners approved regulations for new solar projects in the county. Almost immediately, Birdseye Renewable submitted its plans.

The project must still be approved by the Rowan County Planning Board. It may also require the sign-off of the County Board of Commissioners.

Gold Hill residents plan to fight the project at every step. 

Lance Riley, who lives in the area, said at the rally against the project that he questions the potential ecological and human health hazards of such a facility. He also said that since the company would be clear-cutting forested area and building over streams, the project did more harm to the environment than the solar energy would supposedly benefit it.

“I would ask Birdseye to define ‘green,’” he said. “If you’re going to destroy something pristine in the name of being green, move it somewhere else.”

Gold Hill fire chief Matt Brock said that his department would not be able to adequately respond to potential emergencies in the area of the project. 

And Ken Wiseman, a pilot who lives in the Gold Hill Airpark neighborhood, cited potential dangers to airplanes landing on the airfield and questioned why the state offers tax incentives to solar energy companies. This includes an 80% property tax abatement passed in 2008.

“If we’re not careful and we lose the real gold that’s here, which is this beautiful place, and the beautiful people, and the history and all,” he said. “If we lose a lot of that, it’s going to have a big negative impact on this property, on the values of property in this area.”