Solar project proposed at Ridgecrest

A public hearing is scheduled to weigh the environmental benefits of renewable energy against the impact of introducing more than 90,000 solar panels into a forested mountain terrain.

By Bob Allen

A public hearing is scheduled Jan. 9 on a massive solar-energy project proposed on the grounds of Ridgecrest Conference Center, a retreat facility near Asheville, N.C., owned by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

New Mexico-based Amenergy recently asked the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve a $64.5 million solar-panel project to be located in a remote section of the 1,300-acre encampment that has welcomed over 1 million guests since its purchase by Southern Baptists more than 100 years ago.

Marty King, LifeWay’s director of corporate communications, told the Religious Herald that the Nashville-based publisher is considering leasing “five to six acres” to Amenergy for a pilot project.

If that works out, the renewable energy company founded in 2009 envisions a project featuring more than 90,000 solar panels covering five different sites and totaling 200 acres. It would generate 21.5 megawatts of electricity, making it one of North Carolina’s largest investments in solar power.

King said LifeWay hasn’t made any commitment to either the pilot or long-term projects. He said the only revenue LifeWay would receive would be payment for rent. A similar arrangement exists with a cell phone company that leases space on a large cross at Ridgecrest.

North Carolina is requiring that power companies get about 12 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021. Critics of the Ridgecrest proposal say it would destroy endangered plants, displace wildlife and obstruct mountain views.

The company admits that building in a forested area presents different challenges from wide-open sites like deserts and farms used in other parts of the country, but claims the construction would be unobtrusive and out of view from Interstate 40. Construction could begin as early as next spring and be completed over five phases by 2015.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported in November that Amenergy is also considering a solar project at the Glorieta Baptist Conference Center, a property north of Santa Fe also owned by Lifeway, but that project is on hold pending the property’s possible sale.