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.
The increase in solar farms reflects a larger trend in North Carolina, where investor-owned utilities must provide up to 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources.
North Carolina's renewable and energy efficiency industry employs more than 15,000 people and has generated some $3.7 billion in gross revenue this year, the association says. Companies providing solar services have increased 76 percent since the renewable energy requirement passed the N.C. Legislature five years ago, according to surveys by the Sustainable Energy Association.
The idea behind North Carolina's solar effort is to diversify energy sources and stimulate the economy with a relatively new type of industry.
Solar will never replace traditional power sources because the sun doesn't shine all the time. But solar boosters say efforts such as 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, which also feed power to the grid.
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, possibly 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.
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."
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."
Hunt, the farmer from Rowland, said his reasons for leasing to a renewable energy company were almost purely financial.
"It is guaranteed money," said 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."
Like Livingston, Hunt hasn't abandoned farming other land he owns. His solar farm is surrounded by cornfields that are a short jaunt from the South-of-the-Border tourist stop and the S.C. state line.
Sun farms typically develop in the way Strata Solar Inc. built those for Hunt and the Livingstons. A renewable energy company will strike a deal to rent or buy property, build the sun farm, then resell the power to an electric utility. The solar company makes money, and the utility meets state requirements that it use renewable energy.
Most solar farms contain dozens of rows of large glassy panels, facing south to absorb the best sunlight. Wires send energy to nearby electrical substations. Utility company Duke Energy buys some of the power.
For much of this year, Robeson County was a busy place for solar farms, where Strata Solar developed six of them. Statewide, the company has built about 15 farms and plans more than 20 next year, company spokesman Blair Schooff said. The company's 12 total solar projects this year employed about 360 construction workers, company officials said.
O2 Energies Inc., another solar development company, opened a $15 million sun farm near Fairmont earlier this month. The company has developed and owns seven farms statewide and plans to develop at least five more next year, said the company's chief executive, Joel Olsen.
Jerry Bass, Strata Solar's construction manager for sun farms, said his company trains mostly local workers, then moves them from one job site to the next in areas where the company is building clusters of farms.
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 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 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. I think it's 100 percent more of the future than a lot of people imagined."
Despite the popularity of solar farms in many parts of North Carolina, the business has detractors, including some lawmakers.
N.C. Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican, said it's a mistake to dangle tax incentives, which drain state revenues, for an industry that he contends would not be competitive otherwise. He and others question whether North Carolina is gaining any real economic benefit since solar farms don't produce many jobs after the initial construction phase.
"I think this has set the wrong precedent," said Hager, a former Duke Energy employee. "You take taxpayer dollars and prop up an industry that can't survive on its own. Why do we do this? Why is it any better than any of the other ones?"
The development of solar farms has not caused major increases in power bills, but Hager said even extra pennies on a bill matter to people who are unemployed. He predicted the state's generous tax incentives and energy requirement would be examined by the N.C. Legislature next year.
Utilities argue that it is more expensive to produce sun power than traditional energy forms. They also say the best solar can ever do is supplement more reliable energy sources. It will never replace coal or nuclear because the sun doesn't always shine.
Still, solar supporters say fossil fuels are finite and subject to price fluctuations.