At first glance, it might look as if a futuristic drive-in theater, or maybe a vineyard, is being constructed on Quarry Road just outside Mount Airy.
But a passersby who investigates further will see that a solar farm — this area’s second — is actually taking shape on the 25-acre site, a facility its developer says is putting Mount Airy at the forefront of solar technology in the U.S.
“Mount Airy is going to be rated right up at the top of the scale,” Managing Director Joel Olsen of O2Energies added Friday of the farm’s anticipated output while surveying its construction.
It will be complete in the next few months. “We’re expecting sometime in October,” Olsen said.
When the new Ararat Rock Solar Farm goes online before the end of this year, it will generate more solar electricity per person than almost any other city in the country, according to Olsen. His company, located in the Charlotte area, completed its first solar farm here last year on city-owned land near Mount Airy’s wastewater-treatment plant.
The initial Mayberry Solar facility has a capacity of 1.2 megawatts. The solar farm now being built about one mile to the south of it is three times larger and when completed, both sites will be producing 6.5 megawatts, or nearly 7 million kilowatts of electricity.
“That’s a lot of power for a town of only 11,000 people,” Olsen said.
The “clean” electricity produced from the sun will flow through the Duke Energy distribution grid and power local homes and businesses.
Olsen said this eventually will impact consumers’ electric bills, since there will be less dependence on energy sources that fluctuate in costs, compared to solar which offers a fixed rate. “Solar continues to get cheaper,” he said.
“This is very stable,” Olsen added of the technology involved.
It also will mean a more efficient and conservative use of the electrical grid overall, he said, because power for local users won’t have to travel as far as it once did.
New Use For Land
The Ararat Rock Solar Farm site tucked amid the rolling hills along Quarry Road is crossed by high-voltage transmission lines. A field adjacent to where solar modules soon will be installed contains a corn crop, while some cattle grazed on a nearby hillside Friday.
Olsen pointed out that the solar farm is allowing the property owner to generate income from land that otherwise might sit vacant. O2Energies also will be looking to expand on similar acreage locally as solar technology grows.
“We really like Surry County,” said Olsen, whose firm is being assisted with the development by NARENCO, a Charlotte company that helps businesses with renewable energy solutions.
And if the land should ever need to be pressed into service for agricultural production, Olsen added, it will be easy to re-convert since the solar farm involves no permanent fixtures.
Meanwhile, there will be benefits to the farming industry by providing grazing resources to animals such as sheep, which can consume grass at a solar farm site in lieu of having it mowed with machinery. Poultry and bees are other farming segments that might be integrated with the local solar facilities, Olsen said.
Another benefit of the operation lies in economic development, including employment opportunities for Surry residents.
A 10-person crew from Workforce Carolina was at the site Friday doing preliminary work for the solar modules to be installed, while various other “teams” are handling additional facets of the project, according to Olsen.
By the time it is finished, more than 100 people will have had a hand in the construction, “if not more,” he said.
Surry businesses that gained valuable experience at the first solar farm built last year can employ that expertise in other areas of the Southeast where O2 Energies is developing similar facilities. “We’re using a lot of Mount Airy companies on our projects around the state,” Olsen said.
Local governments will realize long-term property tax benefits from the solar farm operations, which Olsen said additionally should serve as a tool to recruit new companies to the area.
As the O2Energies official completed a mini-tour of the latest solar farm layout Friday, Martin Collins — Mount Airy’s community-development director who played a key role in making the two projects a reality — arrived.
“Wow!” Collins said as he shook Olsen’s hand while simultaneously surveying the recent work at Ararat Rock Solar Farm.
“You’ve got it going on here!”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.