Southampton County is in a position to lead

Published 11:13 am Saturday, August 6, 2016

by Westley B. Drake

I recently read a quote somewhere that said, “Equally educated minds, rarely disagree.” There seems to be a direct correlation between the amount of education on a topic or issue, and a person’s ability to make good decisions. We live in a day and age where research, technology and history can provide answers to most questions, if we only take the time to look for the answers. The day after I learned about the first proposed “utility scale” solar project in Southampton County, I decided that I could not make an educated decision on this issue until I did some more research on the topic. Two months later, you could say I now know more about the agriculture industry and the renewable energy industry than I could have ever imagined. This is a very complex issue and I honestly believe Southampton County is in a position to lead our state and our nation by addressing an issue that has gone unnoticed, until now. I would like to address a couple of the topics regarding these proposals that have been discussed a lot lately.

In order to describe renewable energy development, it is important to point out there are there are three common categories of renewable energy projects; “small scale,” “medium scale,” and “utility scale.” An example of a “small scale” project is when a homeowner places a small wind turbine in their yard, or a few solar panels on their roof, in order to help offset the amount of electricity they purchase from the utility company. An example of a “medium scale” project is when a business places a large wind turbine on it’s property, or several large solar panels on the roof of a large building in order to meet or slightly exceed the amount of utility power used over an entire year. When the building is not using the power that it is producing, the power is sent back into the local electrical grid. An example of a “utility scale” solar project is when a company leases large amounts of acreage for solar or wind energy development with the sole purpose of selling power to off-site customers. These projects are usually greater than 15 acres in size, and can sometimes be as large as one thousand acres each. “Utility scale” solar energy projects are the only projects that currently pose a large threat to the agriculture industry. They are a concern because they are often located on fields that were previously in agricultural production. Farmland has been a target for solar energy development due to that fact that large open fields are the easiest and fastest way to build large solar farms. However, “utility scale” wind energy development is becoming more common in agricultural areas because large windmills have a small footprint and do not generally remove a lot of farmland from production. Another misconception with “utility scale” renewable energy production is that the power being produced is usually sold to other companies or areas, instead of being utilized by the area it is located in.

If we decide not to allow “utility scale” solar farms in Southampton County, are we denying the landowners of their rights? The answer is no, and after researching this topic I found that Southampton County is in a very unique situation. Whether by luck, or great foresight by former county leaders, renewable energy production on a “utility scale” is not allowed in Southampton County’s agricultural zoning districts. This makes sense because removing farmland from production in order to produce electricity is not an agricultural use. In order to develop “utility scale” renewable energy projects, a landowner must rezone their land to an institutional zoning district, which does allow for this scale of energy production in Southampton County. When we think about landowner rights, we typically think of a theoretical case in which a state or local government pressures a landowner to sell their land for a highway or to a governing body against their will. It is important to remember that a landowner whose land is currently located in an agricultural zoning district is entitled to all of the rights in which that zoning district currently allows. By denying their rezoning request, Southampton County will not be denying the landowner of any rights set forth in their current agricultural zoning; instead the county would simply be stating that renewable energy production on a “utility scale” is not the best use of agricultural land.

In most of the cases I have read about, whenever a “utility scale” solar project comes before a county government for approval, the company demands rapid approval. I strongly believe they already know that removing land from agricultural production is an unethical way to produce renewable energy. They also know about the adverse effects it will have on rural communities who rely on agriculture to support its local economy and jobs. They will continue to use their “fast track” approach as long as they can get away with it. I believe that renewable energy development should never be in direct competition with agriculture. We should never be forced to pick between supporting agriculture and supporting renewable energy development. Both are renewable industries, and both are vital to supplying food and energy in the future. The problem is that one industry is slowly eating away at the other, and it is time for that to stop. I have taken it upon myself to begin educating elected officials in Richmond as well as in Washington, DC about this issue. Would you believe that none of them previously realized that “utility scale” solar energy development poses such a threat to the agriculture industry and thus our nation’s food supply? They had no idea that the two proposed solar projects alone could potentially remove as much as 1.5% of Southampton County’s farmland from production, and thus take away jobs and income from an already thriving agricultural economy. I fully endorse the development of renewable energy, but I do not endorse removing farmland from production agriculture in order to do it. If you would like to perform an experiment at home in order to see the importance of agriculture firsthand, I encourage you not to eat for a day or two. As you begin to get hungry again, I think you will be able to look around and find other places we can develop renewable energy that do not conflict with the agriculture industry.

The United States is home to the largest and safest food supply in the world. Are we actually willing to risk losing that reputation? The answer to that question lies in the hands of the elected leaders of Southampton County. Their decision on this issue will impact far more lives and people around the world than anything else they will likely vote on in their political career. I would like to ask Southampton County’s elected leaders a simple question. Have you done your research?

Westley Drake is a local framer in the Newsoms area and is a passionate advocate for agricultural issues. He can be reached at