BUNN, NC – Solar cells and grazing sheep, power lines and ewes and lambs, sustainable energy and sustainable agriculture will converge this year on a 46-acre field outside Bunn (population: 344) in Franklin County, where construction will start soon on a 4.5-megawatt solar farm.
The $15-million project being developed by Charlotte-based O2 energies Inc. will also create a working farm where a 10th-generation North Carolina farmer and his wife will raise free-range sheep and lambs. Progress Solar I initially will be a test site for herd-management best practices on a solar farm. The partners' ultimate goal is to create a model for future collaborative efforts that marry solar-energy production and agriculture in rural sections of the southeastern United States.
Progress Solar I itself will generate affordable electricity sufficient to power 500 homes per year. It will boost the property-tax base and create new jobs in Franklin County where the unemployment rate is near 9 percent – all without consuming water or producing noise or air pollution.
Solar-power developer O2 energies Inc. will own and operate Progress Solar I on a site about 30 miles northeast of Raleigh. The company already has solar farms in operation or under development in Surry, Nash, Avery and other North Carolina counties. The smallest, a 900-kilowatt array, occupies acreage on a Christmas tree farm. Progress Solar I, at 4.5 megawatts, will be one of the largest solar farms in the state.
O2 energies' managing director, Joel Olsen, said his company and the project's general contractor, Southern Energy Management PowerSecure of Morrisville, N.C., are both committed to maximizing the project's positive impact on Franklin County. At a project overview session in Bunn they briefed individuals and companies hoping to work on the system's construction. Olsen said O2 energies makes a point of using local people and subcontractors for its projects.
“The Bunn solar farm will generate clean electricity for local residents and serve as a model for partnerships with family farms," Olsen said. "Additionally, Bunn has one of the largest sheep herds east of Raleigh, which is fortunate for us, since sheep are the best lawn-maintenance crew for solar farms.”
Bunn residents, Chad and Jodi Ray were brought into the project by , Inc. to manage Progress Solar I's sheep herd. Ray Family Farms is a leader in sustainable agriculture and energy conservation. Most recently, Chad and Jodi were welcomed as “Champions of Change” in April at the White House in Washington, D.C. The Rays raise horses, cattle, swine, poultry and vegetables and produce and sell organically grown beef, pork, chicken, duck and eggs.
The Rays will begin working with sheep with the help of Chad's uncle Carvel Cheves, who breeds and raises hormone- and antibiotic-free sheep and lambs at his Clover C Farm in Bunn. Chad said that with Cheves' help and advice the Rays will run sheep at the Progress Solar I site.
Chad said he wants to experiment with the herd size and grazing-management techniques to determine best practices for a solar-farm-based sheep operation in eastern North Carolina. He plans to divide the property into several square parcels on which he can test different numbers and combinations of ewes and lambs and measure their efficiency at weed control along with their growth.
He also hopes to eventually explore more agricultural uses for Progress Solar I's land. Chad pointed out that O2 energies' solar array will cover only 25 of the site's 46 acres. He envisions a multi-dimensional farm operation, perhaps raising broiler chickens, blackberries or blueberries, hay and other crops.
“We'll be connecting the dots,” Chad said, “and there'll be some trial and error as we work out the kinks.” However, he predicted that the knowledge and experience the Rays and O2 energies gain from this collaboration will help other farmers and solar-power developers work together. “There are local farmers in every community, people who know the climate and the land and who might be good partners for a solar farm.”
Construction at the Bunn site will begin after the wheat crop is harvested. Southern Energy Management PowerSecure's team, which is managing the engineering, procurement and construction, looks forward to starting. This will be the company's second project for O2 energies in 2012. The 1.5-megawatt Sandy Cross Solar Farm will be commissioned later this month in Elm City.
Blair Kendall, Southern Energy Management PowerSecure's director of business development, said, “We are very happy to work with O2 energies on the Bunn solar farm. Four and a half megawatts is a big deal; it will create jobs and we are grateful for Progress Energy’s partnership and support for this project.”
Progress Solar I will feed its electricity and Renewable Energy Certificates into the Progress Energy distribution grid.
Bunn Mayor Marsha Strawbridge also is excited about the project. “The solar farm will be great for the town, bringing positive attention and serving as an educational tool,” she said. “We look forward to the opportunities this project will bring, and the precedent it will set.”