Tag Archives: rural development

Kinston: NC’s Innovative Rural Development Hotspot

Early Saturday morning of the first week in April, long before the sun peeked over the horizon, my alarm jarred me awake. Why on Earth would I get up so early on my one day off? To hop on a bus to Kinston, North Carolina, that was leaving town hours before I usually even manage to crawl out of bed.

Located on the Neuse River, 30 miles south of Greenville, North Carolina, Kinston is a hotbed of innovative and sustainable development. I traveled there with a group of UNC students to tour the town and document its use of renewable energy.

When the textile and tobacco industries left North Carolina in the 1990s, so did a major share of Kinston’s economy. On top of that, severe back-to-back flooding in 1996 and 1999 intensified the downturn.

Today, Kinston is back on its feet, touting a thriving arts district and tourism industry. The town even hosts a reality TV show focused on the local restaurant “Chef and the Farmer.”

View of a solar farm along the highway into Kinston
View of a solar farm along the highway into Kinston.

As it rebuilds, Kinston is paying special attention to clean energy. There are two solar farms along the highway into Kinston that provide the town with renewable energy.

Solar farms provide clean, renewable energy, and they can also be an economic boon for farmers. Installations can provide additional forms of income, and the diversification can help stabilize farmers’ often-volatile income streams.

Solar energy is a theme in Kinston. Panel sightings don’t stop with the solar farms along the outskirts. Installations can be found right in the middle of town as well.

Mother Earth Brewing is one of Kinston's main attractions.
Mother Earth Brewing is one of Kinston’s main attractions.

The Mother Earth Brewing Company, as its name suggests, pays special attention to their relationship with our planet. The building sports a six-kilowatt solar array that provides all of the electricity for its tap room and beer garden.

Mother Earth is the first and only LEED Gold certified brewery in the United States. A gold certification is the second highest ranking that a building can achieve for its sustainability.

Solar panels above Mother Earth Brewing's Beer Garden and Tap Room.
Solar panels above Mother Earth Brewing’s Beer Garden and Tap Room.

Mother Earth’s sustainable practices don’t stop there. It recycles its brewing grains by giving them to farmers to use as animal feed, and it donates grain bags to the Forest Service for use in replanting trees.

Dondi Smith, manager of Leon Thomas Treasures in downtown Kinston, said that the brewery played a major role in starting the recent wave of revitalization.

Smith said that the development trends today have directly progressed from the opening of Mother Earth and the Chef and the Farmer in the early 2000’s.

Handmade soaps from a local artist sold in Smith's shop.
Handmade soaps from a local artist sold in Smith’s shop.

Steven Hill, who owns Mother Earth, has also played an important role in fostering Kinston’s arts district.

Smith said that Hill bought about 50 homes in Kinston’s historical district. He remodeled the homes and rents them out at affordable prices to young artists.

According to Smith, the influx of artists to this community that Hill created has been great for Kinston’s economy. The artists start businesses selling their work that they run out of their homes.

The artists also sell their wares to local businesses. Smith’s store sells local handmade soaps, for example.

“So in this span of about seven years, we have just seen this explosion of growth,” she said.

A series of murals at Kinston's Music Park, part of NC's African American Music Trails.
A series of murals at Kinston’s Music Park, part of NC’s African American Music Trails.

Kinston’s history is rich in the arts. One of the many tourist attractions that bring people to the town is the Kinston Music Park, part of the African American Music Trails of North Carolina. The park pays homage to musicians like Louis Armstrong who played concerts there as well as people like the members of James Brown’s band who called Kinston home.

Small solar panels that power the lighting at Kinston's Music Park.
Small solar panels that power the lighting at Kinston’s Music Park.

Lighting for the Music Park is powered by a series of small solar panels. Local energy retailer Cherry Energy provided the panels for the park.

Cherry Energy sells everything from gasoline to solar panels. They sold the rooftop panels to Mother Earth Brewing, and they donated panels to the local farmers market.

Solar panel-topped benches at the farmers market in Kinston.
Solar panel-topped benches at the farmers market in Kinston.

Kinston’s farmers market has been around since 1979, but has seen an increase in activity in recent years.

Local food movements not only help farmers sell their wares, but they also cut down on pollution. Farmers reduce their emissions by not having to ship their produce hundreds of miles to big-name grocery retailers.

A local farmer's truck at the Kinston farmers market.
A local farmer’s truck at the Kinston farmers market.

Kinston’s local food movement started with the farmers market in 1979. It has experienced a lot of activity since the Chef and the Farmer opened in 2006.

A box of fresh collards at the Kinston farmers market.
A box of fresh collards at the Kinston farmers market.

The Chef and the Farmer, owned by Vivian Howard and her husband Benjamin Knight, has become Kinston’s prize jewel. The restaurant is a tourist hotspot, and even hosts the PBS reality show “A Chef’s Life.”

A menu from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant.
A menu from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant.

The Chef and the Farmer serves high-quality food completely created from local ingredients. The restaurant supports local growers in this way, and it highlights the quantity and diversity of foods that can be found so close to home.

Kinston’s rural revitalization efforts draw from many different sources. Between the arts movement, local food efforts, and renewable energy installations, Kinston is transforming into a thriving depiction of the future of rural North Carolina.

FAQs: Renewable Energy Enabling Rural Development

Farmers now have the chance to grow more than just crops.

The growth of the renewable energy industry has led to investment by many in the agriculture industry. But not everyone is convinced such technologies offer substantial advantages.

Below are some of the most common questions surrounding renewable energy and its potential to transform rural communities.

Q: As a person living in a rural community, what is the argument for investing in renewable energy?

A: The ongoing threat of climate change, specifically droughts and floods, increasingly threatens farmer’s harvests. This is where diversification comes in to play.

Diversification is the practice of allocating money for different uses. Farmers can do this by planting multiple crops, instead of relying on the success of a single crop.

It is becoming more important that farmers diversify their income due to the potential for harsh weather in the future. And now farmers have the opportunity to further diversify their incomes by investing in renewables.

Paul Sherman, the associate state legislative director with the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, has worked alongside farmers for years. He understands that diversification is a necessity for farmers.

“Diversification spreads out risk throughout the year,” Sherman said.

Instead of being hit hard all at once, diversifying income limits the risk experienced at any one point in time.

One aspect of investing in renewables is farmers are guaranteed a lease payment each year for their land.

Sherman said this provides farmers with money they can count on.

He also said he views the investment in renewable energy as simply an additional utilization of their land.


Q: Isn’t renewable energy expensive?

A: A large criticism of switching to renewable energy is that it’s too expensive. Historically, renewable energy has cost more than its nonrenewable counterparts.

But with the recent rise of solar and wind installations, the costs of these technologies have dropped significantly.

The growth of the solar industry has made the market more competitive, leading to a decline in costs.

Technological innovation has also driven down prices. The International Energy Agency’s 2015 report, Projected Costs of Generating Electricity, detailed a large drop particularly for solar and wind.

The report compares costs of nonrenewable and renewable energy sources. The cost of renewables is difficult to pinpoint due to variation between, and even within, countries. However, findings show onshore wind as the cheapest renewable technology, and solar PV as having a significant decrease in cost.

This IEA report makes it clear that renewable energy sources are no longer considered outliers on the basis of cost.


Q: Are there laws preventing me from putting solar panels/wind turbines on my property?

A: Laws vary by state—and even by county—regarding renewable energy.

It’s important to look up your region and find existing policies that could prevent you from installing renewables.

California, for example, has laws in place that protect homeowner access to the sun for solar panels. The Solar Rights Act states that consumers have the right to access sunlight. It also places restrictions on the ability of homeowner associations and local government to prevent people from installing solar.

However, not all states have such lenient policies. Many require that you go through a homeowner association before installing panels, which can lead to a dead end.


Q: I live in the city. Why should I care about this?

A: Investing in renewable energy by farmers is beneficial to everyone, rural and urban alike.

Despite the distance between residents of urban areas and rural areas, the two are closely connected.

The crops produced in rural communities are the main source of food for urban dwellers. Without the labor of farmers, millions of people would come home to empty tables and refrigerators.

Keeping this in mind, if rural communities struggle to make ends meet, it could impact their harvests the following years. Money is an input of farming, just as fertilizer and machinery are, and a lack of these greatly diminishes yields.

Low yields mean less food supply and higher prices for consumers—in or out of the city.

However, if farmers diversify their income by investing in renewables, it reduces the financial hit brought on by natural disasters. This would then keep food costs stable for people in rural and urban regions alike.


Q: Will utilizing my land for renewable energy take away from the amount of crops I can generate from farming?

A: Joel Olsen, president of O2 Energies, has dedicated much of his work to installing large-scale ground-mounted solar plants on un-utilized farmland.

As someone familiar with farmers’ concerns, he understands why may are hesitant to invest in renewables. He makes sure to always ask the same question before beginning a project: How can we maximize the local impact of what we do?

Olsen knows land is the most precious resource for farmers, so setting aside valuable land for another purpose seems counterintuitive. However, he also works to ensure that the land designated for renewable energy is just as productive. Raising sheep and planting berries in conjunction with solar farms are two practices Olsen has implemented.

Through the integration of agriculture and electricity production, farmers can maintain productive farmland while investing in these technologies. Farmers don’t have to sacrifice land to invest in renewables: energy and crop production can happen simultaneously.

“Clean energy can be the perfect marriage between preserving farmland and generating electricity,” Olsen said.


Five Points about Wind Energy in North Carolina

Wind is a resource that North Carolina has in abundance. Some see this free natural resource as potential dollar signs as well as a clean renewable energy source. Wind energy investors are trying to find ways to turn this resource into a profit for their companies.

The 3rd Annual North Carolina Clean Tech Summit in Chapel Hill hosted a panel touting “The Path Forward for NC’s Emerging Wind Industry.” Panelists included Paul Friday from Marine Corps Installation East, Don Giecek of Apex Wind Energy, Wayne Harris from Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission, April Montgomery founder of Renewable Energy and Preservation (REAP), and Craig Poff of Ibredrola Renewables. The topic discussion highlighted five major points related to wind energy development in North Carolina.

Technology – How to Catch the Wind

The state of North Carolina has enough wind to make wind farms profitable.

Giecek of Apex Wind Energy concurs North Carolina’s measurable wind is strong enough to support a utility scale wind farm. Current advances in wind turbine technology of longer blades result in a larger area to catch the wind.

“You combine that with some advancements in foundations and steel structures for the towers that allow you to get higher,” said Giecek. “The available wind is now clearly strong enough to be profitable.”

Advances in wind technology have opened up North Carolina to the prospect of profitable wind power projects.

 Siting – Where to Catch Wind

The two largest industries in North Carolina are agriculture and the military. Wind power projects need to be sited so they do not interfere with these two giant economic powers.

“Siting is a really complex issue when it comes to wind development. Wind projects have a large envelope, but a small footprint,” said  Montgomery who founded Renewable Energy and Preservation (REAP).

REAP identifies development sites for utility-scale wind projects by considering needs of commercial, environmental, and regulatory components.

Montgomery is confident that developers can find areas in North Carolina where wind power is compatible with the existing land use. There are no sites where there is zero impact, but the impact can be minimized in places.

“You can have a project that has 25 to 30 thousand acres that is part of the project, but loses less than 50 acres out of agriculture production,” said Montgomery.

Wind power projects could not be sited in populous areas like Cary or Charlotte. Co-development in eastern NC where agriculture and military rule the landscape is a viable prospect.

Politics Blue or Red? – NC House Bill 484

Political polarization makes it harder for wind and other renewable projects to get approved.

NC House Bill 484 was passed in 2013 (http://www.newbernsj.com/article/20130504/News/305049891/?Start=1).

This NC Republican era bill makes it exceedingly difficult to get a wind project off the ground. It does not have clearly defined standards for the projects to meet.

Things have changed drastically since 2009 when NC was a Blue state from top to bottom according to Poff of Iberdrola Renewables.

“There is just so much uncertainty in that bill. It is duplicative. It is arbitrary. It’s subjective. It’s just not a predictable atmosphere,” said Poff. “You’re talking about a development cycle that may be five years long and millions invested.” The uncertain outcome of the approval process inhibits the wind business from an economic perspective.

House Bill 484 is a major hurdle for wind projects located in the state.

Economies of Scale – Wind Subsidies

Economies of scale are the cost advantages that companies obtain due to size, output, or scale of operation. Poff maintains there are some large scale interests who “really have messaged around” that the support for wind is government funded. Notably those associated with the massive fossil fuel industry, such as the Koch brothers.

Truth is-wind power does not get any subsidies until after the project is built and producing power. This is not what the opponents of wind power would have you believe.

“In November of 2015 the unsubsidized cost of wind ranged from 32 cents per kilowatt hour up to the mid-70s or thereabouts. That is cheaper than almost every other utility scale generation. And that was unsubsidized,” said Poff.

Profits – Bottom Line Benefits of Wind to NC

Wind projects can bring much needed income into rural North Carolina counties.

Harris of the Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission emphasized the monetary benefit this way.

“Even with the rebates Iberdrola is now the largest tax-payer in Pasquotank County by a comfortable margin. It is a quarter million dollars a year,” said Harris.

The traditional utilities and Wal Mart lag behind in second, third and fourth place.

“The landowners get 300 thousand dollars in Pasquotank County and they lose almost no farmland,” Harris said.

Farmers share in the income generated by wind. They also can still make money farming the land not utilized by wind turbines.

Tax revenues in the county are up 52% due to the Iberdrola project. All of these benefits happened with the county investing almost nothing in additional infrastructure to support the wind project. The wind industry creates a win-win scenario in NC for Pasquotank County and agriculture business.

Who can argue with a bigger bottom line?