Columbus County Becomes Home to 7MW Solar Energy Farm

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Guidance from North Carolina’s Southeast led to the recent completion of a solar energy installation near Whiteville that is producing enough power to serve electricity to 750 homes. Construction on the 7MW Whiteville-Bowman Farm began last August, taking 14 weeks to complete. It is the latest project of Strata Solar, a Chapel Hill-based solar power producer.

The property sits adjacent the county’s Southeast Regional Industrial Park, making it a potential lure to companies interested in minimizing their carbon footprint. “A company that wants to have a small carbon footprint could easily locate next door,” says Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission. The project amounted to a $20 million investment in the county, with 150 workers constructing the facility. “A lot of the construction jobs were filled with local people,” Mr. Lanier says, which is providing experience to Columbus County workers that can readily be re-applied at other solar energy projects in the Southeast. Strata Solar is developing similar farms across North Carolina, with facilities located in land-rich counties such as Columbus, Hoke, Robeson, and Scotland. Mr. Lanier says Strata and its strategic partner, Carolina Solar Energy, LLC, is looking to develop other farms nearby. “A year from now we may have five or six solar farms in the county,” he says.

Public policy in North Carolina offers a menu of financial benefits to firms engaged in renewable energy production. In addition, state law mandates utilities harness in the coming years about 13 percent of their power from renewable sources such as solar. But the projects also offer direct economic benefits to communities. The Whiteville-Bowman farm, for instance, will add some $4 million to the local tax-base, Mr. Lanier says, which will translate into as much as $32,000 in annual revenue for Columbus County. And that impact comes with little or no additional traffic, pollution, noise or demand for public services.

Supportive local governments plus vast rural lands have helped make the Southeast region a destination for companies in the alternative energy cluster. In recent years, regional marketing and strategic planning has targeted leading firms in solar, biomass and wind power. “The project was sent our way through North Carolina’s Southeast,” says Mr. Lanier. “They’ve been a super-valuable partner to us.”