Second solar firm pitches plan

Geenex, a solar energy firm based in Charlotte, N.C., has become the second company to announce that the Chase City area has been selected as home to a solar farm.
In a meeting held on Thursday at the Estes Center in Chase City, representatives from Geenex were on hand to treat citizens to lunch, describe how solar energy is produced and detail their plans for the “Grasshopper Solar Project,” an 80-megawatt solar generation facility to be located on a 946-acre site just off Highway 49.
Geenex scheduled two meetings on Thursday, one starting at 11:30 a.m. and a second starting at 5 p.m.
Speaking before the morning session, Geenex CEO Juergen Fehr explained that his company not only wants to operate in the community but also be a welcome addition to the area. To accomplish that, he said, he wants to make sure residents understand what a solar farm is, how it works and how he and his firm want to answer any questions and concerns residents might have.
Speaking before a small group of citizens on Thursday morning, Fehr, a native of Austria, said that while he does not sound like a native North Carolinian, it has become his home. Several other partners in the company, he said, are also European and feel the same way about North Carolina and Virginia.
He also said that while the solar industry is rapidly growing and, for some companies, provides a way to make a “quick buck,” Geenex is interested in the long run and growing a business for the future.
Founded in Charlotte in 2012, the firm’s first project was to turn a former airport near Roxboro into a solar farm. The problem, he said, was that there were not enough people who knew enough about solar power.
“We’re going to change it,” said Fehr, “on a small scale but we’re going to change it.”
To introduce a new generation to the solar industry and prepare them for jobs in that industry, he said, Geenex had decided to open a learning center for students and the community.
Fehr then introduced Mozine Lowe, executive director for the Center for Energy Education.
Lowe told the group that the center provides an opportunity to “offer so much to the community” in both North Carolina and Virginia. Citing training programs inside and out, a series of learning labs, Lowe said that those interested in solar and other forms of energy can take advantage of the facilities as well as have the opportunity to hear expert speakers from the field talk about energy and the future of renewable forms of energy.
“Our goal is education,” said Lowe, who added that the center is anxious to work with schools and community colleges. She has talked with Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols and, she said, hopes to get students to the learning center.
“We hope they will pursue a career in this industry,” she said. “This industry is expected to double from 200,000 now to 400,000 by 2020. We want to work with the schools and community colleges to help develop workers for these jobs.”
Director of Land Development Walter Putnam Jr. told the group that for the Chase City project, Geenex is partnering with BayWa, a global firm based in Germany and recognized as a worldwide leader in renewable energy.
Putnam told the group that BayWa has determined that the U.S. will be the world’s largest market for renewable energy over the next decade.
Environmental issues for the project are being handled by Virginia-based Timmons Group, a company founded in 1953 largely as a survey business but now involved in a variety of projects ranging from civil engineering to transportation, utility projects and more.
Putnam told the group that although the first practical solar panel was developed by Bell Labs in 1954, it has only been within the last few years prices for solar systems have dropped to a point to make them competitive with traditional methods of power generation.
Combined with an ever-increasing demand for energy, he said, the result has been a high growth rate for solar power facilities.
Turning to the “Grasshopper” project in Chase City, Putnam told the group that the companies involved want area residents to know what the project is and how it will impact the area.
For the most part, said Putnam, residents will see no impact from the project, and he assured the citizens that the project will have to be approved by various agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and must comply with a Utility Interconnection Agreement and any local regulations and local requirements.
Putnam told the group that the solar facility will not make any noise nor produce any odor.
Fielding a question about glare and reflection from the panels, Fehr explained that the panels are on a tracking system to allow them to follow the sun for maximum exposure and produce very little glare. The panels are also specially coated to reduce any stray reflection.
The solar farm will also be shielded from view by a buffer zone of trees and plants. From outside the farm, said both Putnam and Fehr, the solar farm should not be visible.
The lifespan of the solar farm is calculated at 40 years, said Putnam. Provisions for decommissioning the facility at the end of that time are included in the initial plans.
He also noted that the panels are recyclable.
“Everything is aluminum or glass or galvanized steel,” said Putnam. “There is no pollution, no chemicals, nothing harmful going into the ground.”
Asked about storms, Putnam said that the existing codes require the panels to withstand 120 mph wind gusts. He added that testing of the panels includes being shot with a 1-inch steel ball at a speed of 60 mph “and the panels survive.”
One citizen asked how well the panels perform on cloudy days. Putnam admitted that solar panels perform better on sunny days.
Fehr replied that solar panels actually generate more power in cooler weather, and on a cool and cloudy day, the panels “might not lose that much.”
In either event, said Fehr, the average for cloudy and sunny days for the last decade are included in calculation for the amount of power the plant can produce. Since the company has to meet those figures, he said, the company always provides conservative figures.
Asked about job creation, Putnam said that during the construction peak the plant would require more than 200 people. Some 60 to 70 percent, he said, would be local workers. The remainder, he said, would be management and specialists who come in to oversee the construction process.
Over the long term, he said, the solar plant would create five to 10 full-time jobs.