Developing more energy sources in county can make Southampton a leader

Published 9:51 am Friday, August 12, 2016

I read with interest your “Guest Column” in the Aug. 7th issue of The Tidewater News and wanted you to know that I agree with your conclusion that Southampton County is in a position to lead. The direction, however, of this leadership should take us down a path different from the one you suggest. You would have the readers believe that removing property from agricultural use and putting it into industrial use would be disastrous for the region. I disagree.

I have property being considered for a portion of the solar farm being proposed by Community Energy. Although I now lease the land to a farmer for growing wheat, peanuts, soybeans, corn and cotton, I previously farmed the property on a half-share basis. Before that my father and aunt farmed the property on a similar basis, and before that my grandfather bought the land (1895) and cleared portions of it for growing crops. The clearing was done in large part by his using a mule and an ax to remove tree stumps for the trees that had been cut down. The farm is a Century Farm and I love the land and desire that my children and grandchildren do the same. I realize the importance of agriculture to the area, but I do not share your concerns about its death, or even serious injury, as a result of the proposed solar projects.

As I read your column it seemed that part of your argument against the proposed solar farm was that the electricity generated would be used in areas other than Southampton County. I suspect this is true. If you grow cotton, soybeans or peanuts where do you think they are used? I would suspect that a good bit of the cotton grown in the area goes to China, India and other overseas markets for the production of shirts, pants and other products that are sold in markets around the world including Walmarts around the USA. What about the peanuts you might sell to Birdsong or Hampton Farms? Some likely is used in this area, but I would suspect the bulk of the product goes to companies such as Mars, Hershey’s, Planters or other candy and snack manufacturers for use in candy products sold all over the world. I would venture to guess that only a very small percentage of the crops you grow are actually consumed in Southampton county.

Another point you raise is that owners of agricultural land are not losing any rights. Again I would disagree. I never asked the county to pass a zoning ordinance or to zone my land for agricultural use. When the zoning ordinance was first passed some rights of the individuals who then owned the property were taken away. Before the zoning ordinance was passed a landowner could use his land in any way the landowner desired. If a farmer wants to pay me $70-80/acre to rent my land to grow crops but a solar energy company (or any other individual or company) is willing to pay me four or five times that amount, why should I not be permitted to lease the land to the solar energy company? This would permit me to generate the highest return from my investment.

In fact, the zoning ordinance envisions that circumstances might warrant changes and for that reason the ordinance provides a mechanism for a landowner to request a change the zoning and to request issuance of conditional use permits with the approval of the County and subject to such restrictions as might be imposed by the County. That is what companies seeking to develop solar energy projects in the County are doing — simply following the rules laid down by the government. I am not aware that either of the companies that are proposing solar projects for the County have, as you stated, “demanded rapid approval.” The process has been slow and deliberate. Experts have been brought in from the state and federal governments along with engineers and others familiar with solar projects and the permitting process to answer questions and to provide County officials and the public with answers to questions.

You also imply that removing “as much as 1.5 percent of Southampton County’s farmland from production” will have a serious effect on production of food. One of the solar projects is proposed for land currently growing tobacco. How much tobacco have you eaten lately? I have not had any. A good bit of the land being proposed for a solar farm by the other company is being used for growing cotton. Another crop not on my diet. Soybeans are another crop being grown. Again not on my diet, but I do suppose that a good bit of it goes out of Southampton County to feed chickens, cattle and hogs being raised in other parts of the country.

Readers were encouraged by you to go for several days without food in order to experience the importance of agriculture. No one denies the importance of agriculture, but cut the power off at your home for several hot summer days. You will learn even more quickly of the importance of electricity as you swelter in the heat and the food in your refrigerator goes bad, the pump on your well does not work, your wife cannot wash clothes in the washing machine, and the list could go on and on. One article I read indicated that the world’s energy demands will increase 53 percent from 2008 to 2035. A good bit of this increased demand will be generated by renewable energy projects such as those being proposed for Southampton County. That same article stated:

“Renewable sources will be the fastest-increasing energy category in the next 25 years, said the report, which was prepared by the information agency. Renewable energy demand will climb 2.8 percent a year over the period and will make up 15 percent of the total in 2035, up from 10 percent in 2008.

(Bloomberg News, Sept. 19, 2011).”

State and federal governments are encouraging electric utility companies to produce a greater percentage of their electricity though the development of renewable energy projects such as solar and wind farms. There are probably many reasons for this, but certainly one of them is a concern over global warming and the rise of sea levels. Less use of carbon fuels such as coal, oil, wood and even natural gas will reduce carbon emissions which are believed by most scientists to be contributing to global warming. Development of these alternate sources of power should help reduce the warming trends we are experiencing. I see the development of solar energy in the County as means for the County to take a true leadership role in the state and nation in the development of electricity in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

One point you did not mention in your article deals with the possible harmful effects of agriculture. Have you ever noticed the dust generated when you harvest peanuts, wheat and other crops? I suspect that it is not very good for you and other people in the area to be breathing the particulates being generated into the air we breathe. What about the poisonous chemicals you are using to protect your crops from insects, disease and fungus and weeds such as palmer amaranth? Are any of these chemicals that are being used on your crops getting into the water supply or in the air? Do you irrigate your crops? Some in my area do and I worry about the effect this will have on my water supply. I grew up in Franklin at a time when there were artesian water fountains downtown with water freely flowing 24 hours a day. The paper mill was at one time drawing about 6,000,000 gallons of water a day for its use in the production of paper. This use at least in part contributed to a significant drop in the water table in the area. The artesian fountains long ago stopped flowing. I do not know the answer to some of these problems, but can tell you with a high degree of certainty that these problems are not things to be worried about with a solar farm development. It is a clean and efficient way to produce energy that all in the community need and want — even demand.

You also did not mention what I understand to be a significant benefit to the County through increased tax revenues that can be used by the County to benefit all citizens by providing additional funds for schools, public safety, and infrastructure. I believe that projections were that one of the projects would generate as much as $350,000 to $400,000 in additional tax revenues. Time will tell, but the taxes will certainly be more than what the County now collects.

In conclusion, I agree that Southampton County can be a leader and I am encouraging those in a position to make the decision in the path we will take to lead us down the path that will result in the development of more renewable energy sources in the County.

BOB POWELL grew up in Franklin, practices law in Norfolk with Kaufman & Canoles, PC, and lives on a farm between the town of Branchville and Little Texas. He can be contacted at