RALEIGH — Ron Heiniger just wanted to be a farmer. He encouraged research to avoid solar industry encroachment on North Carolina’s prime farmlands.
But because of his academic study, the respected crop and soil scientist has become an unwilling poster child for anti-solar activists, vilified by the solar lobby, and chastened by his employer, N.C. State University.
“I’ve been called crazy. I’ve been threatened. My job’s been threatened. I really don’t want to advertise my issue very much anymore,” said Heiniger, who works at the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth.
Left unchecked, Heiniger says, replacing prime farmland with utility-scale solar projects could destabilize a fragile agricultural ecosystem. He warns about soil erosion, leaching contaminants, and ruining soil for future crop growth.
Heiniger and Herb Eckerlin, an N.C. State professor emeritus of the College of Engineering, said they were silenced by the university. Cooperative Extension agents across the state were ordered to cancel popular public forums they had arranged independently to discuss pros and cons of the state’s rapid solar growth.
State lawmakers have jumped in, asking university officials if they have stifled viewpoints that don’t align with those of the solar lobby.
Local officials, higher education watchdogs, and grassroots observers question whether N.C. State’s North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center is a tax-supported lobbying arm of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association disguised as an academic pursuit.
Heiniger and Eckerlin had been working with county and municipal governments to understand the complexities of proposed large commercial solar projects. They were encouraged to launch a speaking tour for farmers and other interested parties at county Cooperative Extension offices.
“I vetted my materials through people in my department, and I’ve shared my slides to everybody who’s asked for them,” Heiniger said. “In the university I’ve had nobody argue against what my concerns are. In fact, I’ve had very many people in academics agree 100 percent.”
Neither Heiniger nor Eckerlin, who designed the Solar House at N.C. State, founded its Solar Center, was instrumental in creating the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, or opposed solar energy. They said they were interested in full disclosure about pros and cons so that government officials and North Carolina residents could make informed decisions about the renewable industry.
They were joined by Tommy Cleveland, renewable energy project coordinator at the Clean Energy Technology Center, on a panel at Fayetteville.
While Heiniger was driving to the event, Tom Melton, Cooperative Extension deputy director, called him and directed him to discontinue the series of scheduled forums. It was too late to cancel the Fayetteville session, but Melton eventually kept Cleveland on the panel, while replacing Heiniger and Eckerlin at future events.
“It wasn’t an unbiased, educational-type meeting, Melton said. “It was a promotional meeting. It was an anti-solar meeting.” Factually inaccurate information from the meeting was printed in newspapers, he said.
Melton said he invited Eckerlin to lunch and told him if he would stick to facts and omit “the flamboyant comments” he could remain on the panel.
Melton said he continued to be concerned after an event in Halifax that Eckerlin was “ignorant on the subject. He’s just Googling things and looking it up.”
The university and College of Engineering said Eckerlin was putting them in a bad light, according to Melton. To protect the university’s reputation and educational mission, Melton told county Cooperative Extension offices not to allow Eckerlin or Heiniger on their programs.
“It’s been a bit of a painful process for me,” Melton said. “I’ve been doing this job for over 30 years, and I’ve never asked for anyone not to be on a program.”
State Reps. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, and Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, asked university officials to account for the removal of Heiniger and Eckerlin.
“I’ve only heard one side, and even Solomon listened to both women. But I would be concerned if there was anything untoward about asking them to stand down,” Dixon said.
Richardson attended the Fayetteville event. He called it “without a doubt one of the most enlightening, refreshing, and important seminars I ever went to. I would encourage them, if there’s some reason they politically pulled that back, to not do that. … The university’s mission should never be to present one side.”
Melton said forbidding Heiniger and Eckerlin from taking part in the panel forums resulted largely from complaints by Cooperative Extension agents. Eckerlin said agents were eager to work with them to arrange the meetings.
Other complaints were registered by representatives of the solar industry, and the Clean Energy Technology Center, Melton said.
“The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association contacted the deans of the College of Agriculture, and told them to shut me down, to stop me from talking to anybody,” Heiniger said. “I’m upset that they’re using what should be the freedom of academics to push back against me.”
“I don’t want to embarrass Melton, and I don’t want to embarrass the university. But Melton [is] not representing the people of the state. He’s representing the solar industry,” Eckerlin said.
Dan Way is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.