Yes, you heard that right. If you’ve shopped at Whole Foods recently, you might have seen lamb from one of North Carolina’s many solar farms.
O2 emc is one of many solar companies based in North Carolina. Its solar installations double as grazing fields for sheep and other livestock. This innovative model promotes renewable energy while also tackling one of the most pressing problems in North Carolina: rural revitalization.
Logan Stephens is the Project Development Manager at O2 emc. He sat down and talked about the company’s projects, goals, and rural development efforts.
What is O2 emc’s scope?
“All of our projects that are commissioned are in North Carolina,” said Stephens. “But we are starting to look at other states in the Southeast.”
Stephens said that O2 emc commissioned its 15th solar project this year. It is growing fast. In the five years since he began working for the company, it has grown from just one or two employees to around ten now.
What makes O2 emc stand out from other power companies?
O2 emc takes a unique approach to its solar farms. It strives to use land as efficiently as possible by pairing solar installations with agriculture and livestock.
“On every project we’re working with a local farmer to take care of the site,” said Stephens. “The primary method for that is of course the sheep, which do very well in North Carolina.”
By planting grass on the land where the solar farms are installed, the areas can double as grazing fields for livestock. This allows the land to serve a double purpose. The solar panels produce clean electricity while the livestock provide sustainable, free-range food.
“We see it as the most sustainable and even cost effective way to maintain the grounds if its done correctly,” Stephens said.
What are the benefits of this solar farm pairing model?
Stephens said that O2 emc’s solar farm-livestock farm pairings work to benefit both the solar company and the farmers involved.
“The panels themselves actually provide some shelter for the animals when it’s raining or when it gets hot,” said Stephens.
The animals graze and keep the grass short, which keeps it from shading the solar panels and decreasing on the energy they produce. In turn, the farmer gets a field that’s already been planted with grass and already has a fence around it. The solar panels themselves provide shelter for the livestock on hot or rainy days.
How do O2 emc’s installations help local communities?
O2 emc pays special attention to the local communities where it works. Every installation has a local focus from beginning to end.
“O2 has a company motto that’s, ‘Solar development, local impact,'” said Stephens. “It’s really core to everything we do.”
O2 emc works with a group called Sun Raised Farms, a network of NC farmers. Through this partnership, O2 emc identifies local farmers to work with throughout the process of an installation.
“We also try to hire as much as we can locally during construction,” said Stephens. “So there’s two benefits–agriculture, construction jobs. And then third would be the tax revenue for the local county or the town depending on where the project’s located–sometimes both.”
Tax revenue from a solar farm can be a huge source of revenue for local governments. Agricultural land is subject to tax exemptions that solar farms are not, so when a solar farm is installed, tax revenue shoots through the roof.
“A five megawatt project could contribute as mush as $2 or $3 million to the local property tax base compared to a piece of land that may have only had a $100,000 tax value with an agricultural tax exemption,” said Stephens.
Recently in NC, there has been a backlash against solar energy. How does O2 respond to concerns raised about their projects?
“When we go through the zoning process for a project, there’s typically a public hearing, so I’ll go and represent O2 on behalf of the project,” said Stephens. “It’s my job to answer those concerns as they come up.”
He said that there is a lot of misinformation floating around currently, so it is very important for O2 emc to be present and answer any questions that people may have.
“At the end of the day, these projects are about as low of an impact on the land as you could possibly imagine for a development of this scale. We have little to no impermeable surfaces being created on site,” said Stephens. “This means at the end of the useful life of the solar farm, all of the equipment can be taken up out of the ground and the land can be returned to its previous use.”
Looking forward, what is the future of this model of paired solar-agriculture land use?
Stephens said O2 emc’s growth has historically benefited from a favorable policy structure.
“North Carolina was number two in the country last year behind California in terms of the number of megawatts of solar installed, which is fantastic,” he said. “A lot of that had to do with a very forward-thinking policy that was put in place in 2007, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which created for the first time the requirement for utilities to start purchasing energy from renewable and energy efficient sources.”
“So, in a market that’s by nature a regulated monopoly, all of a sudden there is an opportunity for small companies like us to participate in the electric power generation sector and to compete with the traditional, large, centralized coal and nuclear—for the most part—power plants,” Stephens said.
As far as the future goes, Stephens thinks that there is a big bonus to being a local company.
“We’re not sending money to the Midwest to purchase coal. We’re not sending it to West Virginia to bring in fuel for a coal power plant,” he said. “We’re making that investment here, and for us it’s just extremely important to try to maximize the local impact of what we’re doing.”
So where can I get some of this solar farm lamb?
Whole Foods partners with Sun Raised Farms, and it sells lamb from O2 emc’s solar farms. You can also find a variety recipes to cook with the meat on Sun Raised Farms‘ website.