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Commissioners Go through Motions; Duke Wins Anyway


In Other Matters –

The commissioners unanimously approved a partnership for developing, operating, and maintaining a solar farm on top of the closed Woodfin landfill. The county began looking for a developer in March. The process was to begin with the county paying $27,000 to meet the regulatory requirements to connect any power generation to Duke’s grid, and then another $15,000 for additional feasibility studies. Then, Duke stepped up, having no need to pay itself an interconnection fee, and offering to pay for the feasibility studies. There was an expectation the county would then let Duke handle development and operations as well.

The offer appeared to be slam-dunk. Not only would the county save the cost of the study; it would be working with an outfit that had experience remediating brownfields and knew its way around the solar industry. When the matter was placed on a May agenda, however, the commissioners agreed to let Duke handle the feasibility study, but thought the process to select a developer/operator should be opened to bidding. At the time, Commissioner Frost had criticized the deal as looking “closed-up,” “smug,” and “already done.”

So, the county put the project out to bid in June. Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton said the response included “about five” inquiries and three proposals, and he shared three criteria. Hannah Solar estimated it could produce 6.4MWdc/4.9MWac; Ameresco, 6.7MWdc/5.0MWac; and Duke, 4.7MWdc/3.1MWac. Both Hannah and Ameresco said they’d let the county have all solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), and Duke offered to give the county a penny for every SREC the first five years, with market adjustments every five years.

As for the terms of lease, Duke had proposed a 25-year contract at $700/acre, minus any SREC proceeds, with three options to extend five years every five years. Hannah proposed a 20-year lease at $500/acre, with a 1-percent annual increase. Ameresco’s proposal claimed the company was unable to propose a lease payment. It argued Duke had not provided the numbers needed to enter into the contracts required for working with the utility, and new legislation, House Bill 589, allowed the state to step in if a party selling green energy and the recipient power company could not agree upon terms.

Duke’s numbers were the least impressive, but they were backed by a natural monopoly with strong legal and compliance teams that didn’t have to contract with themselves. This prompted citizen Jerry Rice to say it looked like Duke was holding all the cards. He asked if Duke’s numbers were lower because the utility had a better grasp of the subject matter. To this, Creighton replied in the negative, noting the other applicants were knowledgeable about doing business in the state and had experience building large-scale. He added these days anybody can Google any data.

The point Creighton said had sold him, however, was Duke’s terms of contracting with the county for grounds maintenance. He suggested in the event the solar farm would be abandoned, a lack of accountability for maintenance could lead to “other things.” As for having an incentive not to abandon the site, Duke is already committed to developing 15MW of solar in Western North Carolina. Having won the bidding process, Duke’s next steps will be to determine more precisely how many acres may be developed and thus how much power can be generated.

Shifting gears, the county managers’ reports spotlighted two initiatives aimed at overcoming economic disparity. One, designed in response to the overwhelming demand for outside agency funding last budget cycle, set aside $250,000 from the general fund to be distributed as grants of up to $5000. Worthy projects will pursue, “actions that will stack positive factors, such as stronger connection, communication, and development of our community leaders, while offloading negative factors like isolation, hopelessness, and violence.” Funds must go toward “building capacity, not sustaining efforts.”

The other was the African-American History Lunch and Learn Series. The lunches have been held monthly since June, from 12-1:30PM, at Stephen’s Lee Community Center, and the typical meeting draws around 150 people of all stripes. Commissioner Al Whitesides commended the luncheons as a cut above the normal “pity parties.” Attendees, instead, reach for solutions. Presenter Keynon Lake, who serves as the county’s Community Service Navigator, concurred. The luncheons are not paternalistic, but build on issues of “common interest for seeing the entire community grow.”

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