Workers install the structures which will hold solar panels on a farm in St. Paul, N.C. Land owners in rural eastern North Carolina are leasing out there land to solar companies.
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ROWLAND, N.C. — 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 of homes.
“I 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 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 Laurinburg, N.C., Mayor Thomas Parker, whose community has a solar farm similar to the ones in nearby Rowland. “Anytime 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 sun business.
Some of those may not have cranked up yet, but the association says the number of companies registering with the state gives an indication of the interest. Before the law passed five years ago, North Carolina didn’t have any solar farms, the association reports.
Solar boosters say efforts like North Carolina’s can reduce dependence on coal and nuclear power and stabilize electric bills for customers. Coal and nuclear power plants, both of which create toxic waste, buy fuel from out of state to make energy, and fuel supplies such as coal are subject to price variability.
Solar farms are large-scale projects intended to provide power for the electrical grid, which has historically relied almost entirely on coal, nuclear, hydro, and natural gas. Solar farms provide far more energy than solar panels on homes.
Solar farms periodically spark questions about whether they are appropriate in some communities. Some people say they are unsightly and take up too much space, while others question whether it’s a good idea to replace productive farmland with solar farms.
Conservative lawmakers also question the wisdom of adopting government policies to encourage an industry they say would have trouble surviving on its own. Efforts are under way in North Carolina and at the federal level to scale back incentives and requirements for renewable energy.
To Helen and Tom Livingston, solar farms are a great idea.
She and her younger brother decided this spring not to replant a 47-acre cotton field their family has owned for generations. For much of the next three decades, their family will be paid to rent the land to sun-power developer Strata Solar.
Helen Livingston has leased more than 40 acres to a solar company. The solar farm, on land that once grew cotton, is near Maxton, North Carolina, just across the South Carolina state line.
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Details of the arrangement were not available, but Strata typically pays about $500 to $600 per acre annually. That would be more than $20,000 each year for the 47-acre plot in Robeson County, N.C.
“It is almost too good to pass up,” said Helen Livingston, 71. “For us, it wasn’t just the money. It was the excitement of having a solar farm. But I think people would see that it does pay more than farming.”
Ms. Livingston said producing energy from the sun helps reduce dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, which hurt the environment when they are extracted from the earth.
“All of our family is environmentally conscious,” she said. “We were the right contact for a solar farm because we knew the importance of this.”
Mr. Hunt, the farmer from Rowland, said his reasons for leasing to a renewable energy company were almost purely financial.
“It is guaranteed money,” said Mr. Hunt, 63, a Marine Corps veteran. “Farming is a risky business. If you can take some of the risk out and the liability, you are ahead of the ball game. If I die, my wife will have income because she couldn’t farm the land anymore.”
Willie Locklear, who helped build the Livingston family’s solar farm, said sun projects have created badly needed construction jobs. Many of the people who landed solar jobs in Robeson County are Native Americans, like himself, who were skilled at general construction work, he said.
But Mr. Locklear said those jobs have dwindled and solar farm construction “gave us a chance to show we could do something besides hang a piece of sheetrock.”
Robeson County has an unemployment rate that hovers near 13 percent, one of the highest in North Carolina.
“When I think of solar, I think of Texas, Arizona — places out West,” said the 42-year-old Mr. Locklear, now a supervisor with Strata. “But the opportunity has proven itself here. All it takes is an open land mass and somebody willing to take a chance. Sunlight is going nowhere.”