On a country road south of Monroe in Union County, near a golf course and soybean fields, is a new kind of farm - a solar farm. This spring, Duke Energy began generating electricity from 684,000 solar panels here, the largest solar farm in the Charlotte region and one of the largest in the state.
The array of angled solar panels is low to the ground, and barely visible to traffic shooting by on South Rocky River Road. But inside the gate, row after row of panels covers much of the 400-acre site, which Duke leases from a local farmer. This is among several dozen solar farms Duke Energy owns itself. It buys electricity from hundreds more– from large private solar farms to small rooftop arrays.
“Duke Energy's got 35 solar facilities in the state, large and small. This is probably our third largest one and this was completed in April of 2017 and it's been cranking it out ever since,” says Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.
Cranking out electricity - up to 60 megawatts, enough to power about 10,000 homes, says Wheeless.
An inverter whirs nearby. Wires from the solar panels feed into a white metal structure about 10 feet high and six feet long that converts electricity from the solar panels into a form that can be sent out onto the electric grid.
“Solar electricity is generated in DC, direct current, and it needs to be converted to alternating current, so that's what we use at home. And eventually it all funnels down to a substation down here, where it goes out on the grid and people use it at home,” he says.
The inverter goes quiet when clouds come over, says Duke operations manager Matt Israel. “And then the clouds will break and it will ramp back up. So audibly, you can tell that the equipment's working like it's supposed to,” he says.
The hundreds of rows of solar panels are planted much the way corn or soybeans were until a few years ago. It's an increasingly common sight across North Carolina, which now ranks second in the nation for installed solar capacity, behind California.
Most solar sites are in sparsely populated areas like this, and attract little attention. But in some places, residents have opposed solar farms, for fear it will hurt property values. Duke's Monroe solar farm is just fine with Rick Becker, the mayor of nearby Mineral Springs. “We like seeing farmland converted to a use which still keeps the space open. This could be, it's 400 acres, it could be 400 houses or 2,000 houses by some people's zoning. We don't have that, we have a productive solar generation facility, which is I think really good use of the land,” Becker says.
Altogether, about 2,500 megawatts of solar power are now feeding North Carolina's electric grid, says Duke. It's only about two or three percent of Duke's total output, but it's growing. Under state law, Duke must generate 12.5 percent of its electricity from solar, wind or other renewable sources by 2020.
A new state law may speed that growth. In a rare compromise, solar advocates agreed with Duke on legislation to boost solar, while at the same time giving Duke a bit more control. Where in the past Duke was required to connect with any solar facility that asked, House Bill 589 lets it pick sites through competitive bidding, says Wheeless.
“So House Bill 589 really is going to double, and almost triple, solar in North Carolina. It's going to have a competitive bidding auction where a lot of developers can bid in projects to Duke Energy to build in the future, like large scale farms like this one,” he says.
The bill also allows rebates for more rooftop solar- panels on your house - and for community solar, which allows groups of residents to subscribe to small solar facilities.
Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless says with the new law now in effect, there are more solar farms like the one in Monroe to come.
"I think this is kind of the trend of what you're going to see in solar in the future. You're gonna see a lot more large facilities like this in the 400-500-acre range, where you going to have 60 to 80 megawatts, maybe a hundred megawatts soon," Wheeless says.
And one last thing about the Monroe solar site – it’s like the farms around it in another way: livestock. A flock of about 200 sheep grazes under the panels, to keep the grass cut.