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The future of solar in North Carolina

Solar panels energize the building at the Ocracoke airport. Photo by David Mickey

Solar panels energize the building at the Ocracoke airport. Photo by David Mickey

Editor’s note: Solar power is evolving in North Carolina, and we will post updates to this story as they develop.

By David Mickey

A famous frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.”

While Sesame Street’s Kermit was describing how it felt being a green frog living in a green forest, he could have said the same thing about Ocracoke homeowners trying to install solar panels on their roofs.

For the last few years, with state and federal incentives encouraging

Solar panel at Ocracoke ferry terminal. Photo by P. Vankevich

Solar panel at Ocracoke ferry terminal. Photo by P. Vankevich

investment, utility-scale solar usage in the form of “solar farms” has grown until North Carolina now ranks fourth nationally in solar energy.

Thanks to tax credits, a few companies built solar-powered data centers in North Carolina. Those are Google in Lenoir, Apple in Maiden and Facebook in Forest City.

The issue of solar farms has been on the Hyde County commissioners’ agendas recently, but only for developing regulations should any companies want to build solar farms on the mainland.

“The tax credit made North Carolina second in the nation in new solar installed in 2014 and created thousands of jobs,” said Sally Robertson, coordinator for Solarize North Carolina , a member-based nonprofit focusing grassroots effort to greatly increase the installation of rooftop residential solar power systems. Working with area non-profits and installers, Solarize North Carolina uses group purchasing to lower installation costs and simplify solar power for homeowners.

“The state’s renewable energy tax credit made solar affordable for a wider range of homeowners than ever before,” Robertson added.

Solarize North Carolina is active in the Triangle area, but currently cannot offer formal support to Ocracoke.

That fact may change since the Republican-led General Assembly did not extend the 35 percent Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit expired Dec. 31.

“The failure to renew it created great uncertainty about the future of solar in North Carolina,” Robertson said.

Although the state removed tax credits for solar power, the Federal solar tax credit, which was scheduled to expire December 31, 2016, suprised many by  having been extended through 2021 as part of the spending bill passed on Dec. 18, 2015. From now through 2019, it pays back 30% of the installed cost of your system. Solarize North Carolina has pricing and tax information here .

While State Rep. Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk) favored extension, State Sen. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) opposed it.

“I believe we have one group that’s real interested in promoting the wind and solar industry and another group that’s interested in trying to save the rate-payers money in the long run,” he wrote in an email.  “Therefore, I’m with the ratepayers.”

According to the January 15, 2016 Raleigh News and Observer, during a recent legislative committee meeting in Raleigh, Cook continued to criticize solar saying, “I recently read an article about it, and it sounds like once farmland is converted to use for solar farms, it’s not coming back. and eventually that land is pretty well ruined for any kind of farming.”

Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, disagreed saying, “There’s a lot of red herrings being thrown out there by opponents of green energy around these land-use issues.  Those issues are really, really overblown and not significant.”

Solar panel along Highway 12. Photo by C. Leinbach

Solar panel along Highway 12. Photo by C. Leinbach

According to an op-ed piece Nov. 12 in the Charlotte Observer by Randy Wheeless, Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, spokesman: “…Most states that do allow these types of sales (solar) have higher electric rates. Duke’s retail rates are around 20 percent lower than the national average.”

The tax credit has benefited the state.

Ned Barnette, in the Oct. 10 Raleigh News & Observer, noted: “In 2014, the tax credit for renewable energy claimed by the state’s businesses and residents totaled $126 million, but it generated $717 million in spending, according to data from the N.C. Department of Revenue.”

Residential solar is still relatively small across the state.

Ocracoke’s electricity comes from Tideland Electric Membership Cooperative, which purchases wholesale power from Dominion Resources, a utility based in Virginia whose electricity comes from fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) or nuclear (uranium).

Dominion has 30 residential solar projects in North Carolina. Only 11 of those connect to Tideland, one of which (non-residential) is at the Ocracoke Airport.

Several homeowners here have some solar, such as for hot water, noted Garick Kalna, a local builder.

Again, according to Wheeless: “Duke Energy is in the middle of a $500 million solar expansion in the state with four major solar facilities under construction. More than 3,000 customers have rooftop solar connected to the company’s grid.”

Opposition to residential solar comes from such conservative groups as the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the Pope family’s John Locke Foundation and Civitas.

The state is trying to overturn the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution.  One part of the plan which the state refuses to accept, the Clean Energy Incentive Program, would make solar power available to rural areas that lack access to solar power.

Still intact is the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. Again, according to a story in the News & Observer, that law requires that 6 percent of electricity sales in North Carolina come from renewable energy, or be replaced by energy conservation.

The existing system of large centralized coal and nuclear plants generating power for millions of customers is challenged by smart- and micro-grid technology to make renewable energy more practical and economical.

For Tideland, the expense of moving electricity over long distances to serve relatively low numbers of customers limits their approach to renewable energy.

The system must accommodate the high demand for power during the tourist season and still recover its fixed costs during the off-season.

Because power is not stored in the electric grid, the transmission infrastructure has to be large enough to meet the peak summer demand.

Even in the off-season on the coast, extreme cold stresses the system as residents draw more power using electric space heaters.

Heidi Smith, Tideland’s marketing manager, sees low customer density plus the seasonal nature of their service area making programs such as residential solar and net metering difficult. From Tideland’s perspective, customers who generate their own power but remain connected to Tideland are not covering their full share of the co-op’s fixed costs.

Nonetheless, Tideland is constructing a “Community Solar Garden” near Pinetown, Beaufort County.  When completed, Tideland members will be given the opportunity to buy shares of the output.

The co-op has a weatherization loan program to help members reduce their use of electricity.  “Energy conservation should always come first when a homeowner is considering solar,” Smith said.

Tideland members can find out which appliances are consuming the most electricity by using “Kill-A-Watt” meters available at Tideland offices.

 

 

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  1. Interesting that a photo of the solar panels at the Ocracoke ferry terminal is shown. I recall visiting there after the last hurricane and seeing those panels, and others attached to poles on Hatteras island as well, destroyed by the winds. The break-even point on solar cost is 20-30 years down the road…if your panels get destroyed by a hurricane every couple years, that’s going to be expensive energy! I read about the solar install going in on Hatteras island…I think it’s a great idea, but I also wonder how it will hold up to hurricane force winds? Hopefully they have fully taken that into consideration.

    I think solar is a great idea, but I have some reservations about the scale being talked about here.