The North Carolina Solar Power Association is battling the perception that utility-scale solar installations, also called solar farms, are “just plain ugly,” the group’s spokeswoman, Caitlyn Vines, told Carolina Journal.

The group announced a two-phase campaign, named “Sun to Sip,” linking the state’s solar farms with its vineyards and wineries. The state’s lead tourism promoter Visit North Carolina and the nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation will join NCSPA in the effort.

Phase One is an “awareness campaign” that will promote solar farm tours in conjunction with vineyard and winery tours. “With more than 400 vineyards and 185 wineries here, you can map your way through our wine trails, savor every stop, and, possibly, use free electricity to charge a mobile phone from a nearby solar farm,” Vines said.

Many of North Carolina’s more than 300 solar farms are near commercial vineyards and wineries. NCSPA has developed several regional tours the group says would interest wine aficionados who also appreciate the benefits of renewable energy.

Phase Two of the campaign would build a joint-use demonstration project with grape vines and solar panels on the same property, funded in part by Golden LEAF.

The General Assembly established the Golden LEAF Foundation to collect a portion of the settlement funds from cigarette manufacturers. It makes grants for a variety of economic development projects across the state.

Golden LEAF’s board of directors in April approved an $18.4 million grant that will go to the organization developing the most promising solar panel/vineyard joint-use project.

Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach told CJ his organization would be a natural to help underwrite the “Sun to Sip” initiative.

“Solar farms and vineyards have been created on land that may have been used for tobacco farming, so we were happy to take the lead on this project,” Gerlach said.

Gerlach said his board expects the site to be a major tourism draw. After the tour is over, visitors can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine while they use some free solar electricity to charge their mobile devices.

Gerlach said he envisioned a layout similar to a “checkerboard pattern,” with rows of panels separated by similar-sized grape trellises. He said the project should be efficient, as workers could clean the panels when they were not tending the vines.

While the competition for the Golden LEAF grant is open to any organization in North Carolina, he believes we may have some perfect sites ready to go. “I believe the state’s megasites, originally established to attract automobile manufacturing plants, would be suitable locations for the joint use project, and there is no way North Carolina is going to attract three or four automakers,” he said.

Visit North Carolina, a business unit of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, leads the state’s tourism development program under contact with the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

Parting Shot is a parody loosely based on events in the news. This parody appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Carolina Journal.