ROWLAND -- Just
off a country road is a sight few people ever imagined in this corner of southeastern North Carolina.
Solar panels cover a 35-acre field
that once produced corn, tobacco and other crops. When the sun shines, the panels generate enough electricity for hundreds
initially thought this was a pipe dream,” said farmer Billy Dean Hunt, recalling discussions with a solar company about
using his cornfield for a sun farm. “But I started talking to them. They convinced me they would honor what they said.
So I did it.”
The scene near Rowland – about 115 miles southeast of Charlotte
– is found increasingly across North Carolina. Solar farms dot the landscape from the Blue Ridge mountains to the sandy
coastal plain – the result of an emerging renewable energy industry.
In many cases, solar
farms are replacing cropland that doesn’t generate enough income from traditional farming. Other times, solar farms
are being placed on vacant industrial sites or land that hasn’t grown crops in years.
Unlike many other Southern states, North Carolina has encouraged the development of solar power through generous tax
incentives and a state law requiring electric utilities to use some renewable energy. These policies are a key reason North
Carolina often rates high in national rankings of solar-friendly states – and why solar farms are growing steadily.
“This shows we are progressive,” said Thomas Parker, mayor of Laurinburg, whose community
has a solar farm similar to the ones in nearby Rowland. “Any time we can add a dollar to the tax base, we are interested.
I believe in it. I think this will be more prevalent in the future.”
Since 2007, when North
Carolina began requiring power companies to use renewable energy, about 100 solar farms have registered to open, according
to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a group that tracks the solar energy business.