An idea born from a chance meeting at a convention in 2011 is today culminating in the erection of the HXOap Solar Project in Halifax County. From that meeting came the company Geenex, formed in a partnership between Josef Kessen and Georg Veit, both German born and both intensely interested in solar energy, Kessen said.
"We met at a solar exhibition and exchanged cards," Kessen said. "I pulled out his card one day and said, 'Should I call him? Yes.'"
The men discussed their dreams and found a common ground, he said.
"Germany is famous for solar," Kessen said, putting their interest into context. "We decided we'd like to do this."
The men formed Geenex in 2012. They constructed a couple of small projects, Kessen said, but then started looking for a place not only to construct a large "solar farm," but also a center a sort of solar school, where students and industry professionals could come to study.
In their search, they came from California, where Kessen lives, to North Carolina, then to Halifax County. When they were introduced to the former Halifax County airport site, vacated when the new airport opened in May 2009, they knew they had found their spot, Veit said.
"To really be successful, we needed more than just space and infrastructure," he said. "We needed a base, a place where you can feel comfortable, a place you can rely on. And I think that's why we are in Halifax."
The site of the former airport was being marketed by Cathy Scott, executive director of the Halifax County Economic Development Commission. The two men liked what they saw, negotiated a deal which included a 15-year power purchase agreement with Dominion North Carolina Power, and were off and running, they said.
"We started small, and look where we are now?" Kessen said. "It was an unbelievable amount of work."
Construction at the 220-acre site, just off U.S. Highway 158 and west of Roanoke Rapids, began in June and more than 100 workers are busy putting up grids that will hold nearly 100,000 solar panels. Work on the solar farm is far enough along now that on Wednesday, Veit and Kessen invited about 100 people from the community to lunch at the Kirkwood Adams Community Center, especially those who helped move along this project. Afterward, the visitors were treated to a bus tour of the new solar farm.
When the plant begins producing energy in December, it will power about 3,400 homes, according to Veit.
The men expect this solar farm to be the largest in the state, and among the top five largest on the nation's East Coast, they said.
One of the workers on site is Cesar Mendoza, head foreman. He was driving around the site Wednesday afternoon, checking the construction going on around him.
"I will be happy to say I did this," Mendoza said. "I really enjoy it. Everything you can see here is about doing something better for the Earth — it feels good to be a part of it."
Project manager Ronnie Andrawis said he also is proud to be part of this project.
"It's like a small little community out here," he said, escorting visitors around the site. "People want a greener way to produce energy. You can just tell how the County has embraced this project. It's inspiring and will put Halifax on the map in a completely different way."
One of the partners in this project is ET Solar, an energy investment company based in California and headed by director Kevin White.
"Solar is growing like no other energy industry," White said. "Our goal is by 2050, all energy is renewable energy. ... Hopefully, this is an epicenter in North Carolina where people can come and learn."
Learning is a big part of the project, Veit said. The solar farm also will include a 5,000-square-feet learning center where professionals and students, including those associated with Halifax Community College, can come study for jobs in the industry and school kids can learn about solar power in general, he said.
Permits are being sought for the Halifax Solar Center, and Veit said he hopes it will open in the spring.
"I think students of this area will have a clear advantage," Veit said of the solar industry's future. "We want everyone to know about solar; we really want to educate children."