Commentary

Opportunity looms to boost solar power in North Carolina

The building at the Ocracoke airport is one of only a few island buildings with solar panels. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Sally Robertson

Solar energy: What’s not to love? You take something that nature provides for free and turn it into electricity. It saves you money. It replaces fossil fuels, which cause the climate crisis, give kids asthma and leave behind coal ash to seep into our rivers.

Solar costs have plummeted 70% in the last ten years. An average home can now “go solar” for around $18,000, and a federal tax credit pays back 30% (through this year, then gradually phasing out).

In 2016, Tideland electric coop made Ocracoke a solar trendsetter by installing an innovative microgrid that combines solar panels with batteries for energy storage.

Batteries pair well with solar because they store excess solar power for use when the sun isn’t shining.

Projections show utilities will be able to build solar-plus-storage facilities less expensively than natural gas-fired power plants by 2023. Some states already require utilities to build renewables and storage instead of natural gas power plants.

Unfortunately, solar works better in some places than others. Tideland does not offer “net metering,” an arrangement that gives you full retail value for the power you produce, crediting you instead at a wholesale rate, so your investment takes longer to pay for itself.

This is true for solar photovoltaic systems – panels that produce electricity. Solar hot water systems, in contrast, do not need to be interconnected to the Tideland grid and could be a good value for Ocracoke homeowners.

Most other states allow solar companies to install solar on your roof at no upfront cost and charge you only for the power you use, but North Carolina prohibits such deals.

A 2015 bill to overturn this rule failed when Duke Energy, provider of most of North Carolina’s electricity, lobbied vigorously against it.

When Duke has an opportunity to weigh in on solar policy, it usually favors measures that put the brakes on solar.

The reason is simple: The state incentivizes Duke to build large fossil-fuel power plants. That’s how the company makes its profits.

How can we change this?

That’s a question the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is asking now.

DEQ will soon publish a draft of its new Clean Energy Plan, the product of a stakeholder process in which I have been privileged to participate.

If we stakeholders have done our jobs, and if DEQ is paying attention, the Clean Energy Plan will begin creating incentives that reward Duke for reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy.

It may also help Ocracoke residents and others benefit more from solar.

You can boost the future of solar energy by submitting your comments on the draft.

Visit deq.nc.gov/CleanEnergyPlan between Aug. 16 and Sept. 4 to read the draft and comment. Learn more at ncwarn.org or email me: sally@ncwarn.org.

I love talking about solar.

Sally Robertson

Sally Robertson is Solar Projects Coordinator at NC WARN in Durham, N.C.

1 reply »

  1. My thanks to Sally Robertson! This is beautiful and refreshing for a place I hold dear.