Solar farm near Canton, NC
This solar farm is located near Canton and was the first in North Carolina.

ASHEVILLE — In a night focused much around clean energy, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday for environmentally friendly light bulbs, a solar energy farm and the creation of a full-time staff position to oversee local sustainability efforts.

In December 2014, the county aimed to lower carbon emissions rates from county-owned facilities by 2 percent and began tracking them. They exceeded that goal and by 2016 emissions were down 10.5 percent from 2014. The push for sustainable energy to protect the environment accelerated on Tuesday.

First, the board unanimously supported giving $700,000 to replace 47,000 fluorescent light bulbs in 38 school buildings. This is the first phase of a $5.6 million total project cost to be completed over two years, and funding will come from state lottery funds combined with a $2.3 million offset from a rebate by Duke Energy.

According to Alesha Reardon, Buncombe County Schools Energy Director, the existing fluorescent lighting uses about 30 percent more energy than the LEDs will. The project is expected to save $855,500 in energy costs annually.

Reardon said the exact amount of the rebate from Duke Energy is uncertain and they may not receive the full $2.3 million. “In the long run what we will capture is the energy savings and that won’t change no matter what happens with the rebate,” she said.

Judy Maddox, chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, was one of many citizens who attended Tuesday’s meeting to thank the commissioners for their work supporting the local environment, lauding increased efforts aimed at clean energy.

Commission Chair Brownie Newman said he expects the savings will make it possible to fund school-related improvements such as increasing teacher pay.

Commissioner Jerry Belcher said, “When those savings start showing up, we need to invest them wisely.”

Redundant spending?

Lisa Baldwin, a former School Board member, told the commissioners before they agreed to support the project that in 2011, the schools received a grant to install new lighting in 31 schools.

“Don’t replace existing energy-efficient lighting,” Baldwin said.

She said she believes it’s too soon to invest such a significant amount of money in a project that is addressing an issue the schools have already dealt with, and asked commissioners to consider that much of the increased energy usage is coming from newly installed athletic lighting, not light bulbs in buildings.

Baldwin urged Commissioners to look at public school enrollment which has been declining due to competition with private schools, causing “empty classrooms” that don’t need new lighting. The Board did not discuss these points.

Solar farming

Newman introduced another project intended to save taxpayers money, and reduce carbon emissions.

Newman, whose day-job is to research solar farm properties, proposed using the retired Buncombe County landfill in Woodfin for a 25-acre solar farm. The solar farm would create 18 percent of all of the energy necessary to support Buncombe County government. It could create $50,000 more recurring annual income for taxpayers, he said.

“This is very much a concept and you don’t really know which sites end up being successful and which don’t,” Newman said.

He confirmed that none of the three energy companies with which he is affiliated be allowed to bid on the project.

In theory the farm would produce 5MW of energy, eight times larger than a solar farm on a retired landfill in Canton, the first solar farm in Western North Carolina.

North Carolina is one of the top 5 solar markets in the United States. Lowered solar costs are attracting investors. Ten years ago, costs of a solar panel were more than $4 per watt. Now, it’s well below $1 per watt.

Newman says all the County would ever have to pay for the project would be $26,000 for the initial feasibility research to see if the land could support a solar farm. That would be conducted by Duke Energy. The Board approved allocating $26,000 on Tuesday.

Duke Energy, which has power lines near the site, would be required to buy energy from the site.

The project would be developed in about 12 to 18 months, and expected to last for 30 to 40 years.

It would bring in $30,000 annually in rent from whatever company purchases it, and $10,000 to $12,000 would come in from saved mowing costs of the land. It would also bring in $20,000 in property taxes to Buncombe County and Woodfin.

One resident, Bill Maloney, spoke out in support. He said his church, St. Eugene Church, installed solar panels that have saved more than $6,000 a year, paying 30 percent of their electricity bill.

“When it comes to solar, you don’t ask. ‘Why do it?’ You ask, ‘Why am I not doing it?’ ” Maloney said.

Coming back to Newman’s first point that the project is merely theoretical, resident Jerry Rice voiced some concerns. “How much of that land is really usable?” Rice asked. “Will they support the panels long term? Will they sink?”

The board unanimously approved the proposal.

A new county office

The Board also supported creating a position for a full-time staffer to focus on sustainability. The creation of the position reflects the increased priority of the county to address clean energy efforts.

“I hope the position will work collaboratively with the work that’s already happened and also with Health and Human Services,” Commissioner Ellen Frost said.

The annual salary for the position will be $75,000.

Stock image. Carolina Public Press will hold a free forum on renewable energy in Western North CarolinaLearn more about renewable energy

The next Carolina Public Press Newsmakers forum will be on the topic of renewable energy in Western North Carolina and will be held on Friday, April 21, from 8:30-10:30 a.m. at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus. Tickets are free, and live-streaming is available for those unable to attend in person. RSVPs are required.

To RSVP or learn more details, click here.

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Amanda James is a contributing government reporter for Carolina Public Press.

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