From the tractor
by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
I was recently invited to Maple View Agricultural Center in Hillsborough to take part in a ribbon cutting to celebrate the launch of a solar project in partnership with Duke Energy. I support and have an interest in alternative energy, but I also wanted to learn more about this solar project.
I believe alternative energy has the potential to be a big deal for farmers in the future. Farmers are plenty capable of producing food and fiber crops, and I envision a day where growers will also contribute greatly to our energy resources.
As part of recent legis-lation requiring power companies to get 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable or energy-efficient measures, Duke Energy has committed $50 million to establish solar energy systems in the state.
The 784-cell solar farm located at the Maple View Agricultural Center is the only one of the Duke projects that involve an agricultural operation. The majority of the other solar projects involve roof-top units.
In addition to the educational center that hosts enrichment activities for school, college, scouting and other groups, Maple View also operates a dairy, a milk bottling and value-added operation, and a store where ice cream, milk and other dairy products made on the farm are sold.
The educational aspect of the farm's offerings, plus the rural setting, was part of the appeal of partnering with Maple View, said Ken Kernodle, a district manager with Duke Energy. Through classroom activities offered at the ag center, children and their parents can learn more about solar energy and see the technology firsthand.
A kiosk in one of the center's four hands-on learning labs constantly measures and reports how much energy is being produced based on the amount of sunlight. One of the kiosk screens shows how many ovens, air conditioners, computers and 15-watt fluorescent bulbs could be powered with the energy being produced at Maple View. The solar farm at Maple View also allows Duke Energy to learn, too. The solar panels capture energy in the field and return it to the grid. Duke Energy will be able to measure the effectiveness of this setup, learn about the size of the line needed to accommodate the energy produced and also find out what happens on a 30-degree day versus a 100-degree day.
Solar energy is expensive right now, Kernodle said, but in the future as technology improves, that cost will likely come down.
The solar project at Maple View, which takes up about an acre of land, is considered a small solar farm. The panels are expected to produce enough energy to run the entire farming operation if the energy wasn't being returned to the grid.
The amount of land used to produce this amount of energy illustrates why it will take more time and improved technology before it will be cost-effective for a farming operation. At some point, space may be an issue, Kernodle said.
Allison Nichols, a founder and manager of the ag center, said Maple View began seriously researching solar panels in 2007, with the idea of putting in a mega watt project such as ones operating in some Northern states. They had to scale back their plans after finding out that they could not sell the energy to a third party in North Carolina.
Nichols said this idea came about because "we wanted to teach more about environmental issues, conservation and renewable energy, and we wanted to reach kids at a young enough age to impress upon them ways to help out the community and the environment."
Nichols said partnering with Duke Energy has helped increase what the center has been able to share with students. "The kiosk is a lifesaver for us because there were not a lot of materials for us to draw from," she said.
While the scale of the project changed, the timing still proved right for the project. Duke Energy was looking to launch solar projects at the same time Maple View was exploring solar options to add to its educational offerings.
As Kernodle said, this project is a "continuation of the community-minded spirit of Bob Nutter and Maple View Farm, and it has perfect synergy with the mission of the ag center and its educational mission."
I couldn't agree more.
Educating the non-farming public about the role farms play in feeding and clothing us, and maybe one day being an energy resource, remains the biggest challenge for agriculture in my opinion.
Too many people don't understand that farms are the source of all the foods we enjoy. We must continue to share that message, and the Maple View Agricultural Center is helping do that. I look forward to hearing more about what Duke Energy and Maple View learn from this project. As Kernodle noted, "renewable energy is here."
It may take time before the technology is advanced enough to make the energy economically feasible, but it is clear that we must continue to look for energy alternatives.