Tapping the power of the sunWritten by Becky Johnson
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Progress Energy customers can now claim a fraction of their power comes from the sun.
A new solar farm is on line in Canton sporting 2,340 solar panels on four acres — generating enough electricity to power 51 homes. A new state law that mandates utilities get 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources by the year 2021 was the catalyst for the solar farm.
“A project like this really starts with good policy,” said Michael Shore, president of FLS Energy, which installed the solar field.
To help meet the renewable mandate, Progress Energy pledged to buy solar power from FLS at a set rate for the next 20 years.
While the solar field cost FLS $5 million up front to build, a sure-fire revenue stream in the form of a 20-year contract with Progress essentially guarantees a pay off down the line. Nonetheless, financing wasn’t easy, especially during an “economic calamity,” Shore said.
“Banks don’t have experience financing solar farms,” Shore said. “Even though we know we have a secure revenue stream backed up by Progress — what could be more secure? — we still had to get banks comfortable with it.”
Now that the ground has been plowed, Shore hopes subsequent projects will be easier. After 10 years, the debt will be paid off, and solar becomes quite profitable, Shore said.
“The lynchpin is you have to have somebody willing to buy the electricity,” Shore said.
And without the state legislation that forced utilities to invest in renewable energy, it is unclear whether a buyer would step up to the plate.
Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said this was exactly what lawmakers had in mind when passing the renewable energy legislation three years ago.
“We wouldn’t have this project if we didn’t have those kinds of incentives. We wouldn’t be creating these jobs and moving toward an authentic alternative energy portfolio,” Queen said.
Progress now has 11 megawatts of solar power feeding its grid from solar farms across the state.
“This is a significant step in our balanced approach to bring clean, reliable and affordable power to the people across North Carolina,” said John Smith, Progress Energy’s vice president for the western region.
While this solar farm is only half a megawatt, add that to another half a dozen that have come on line in the past year, and it starts to add up, Shore said.
“This is just the beginning. When we stared this project two years ago, there were no solar farms in North Carolina. There were no solar farms in the Southeast,” Shore said.
The business of solar
Solar technology has long been considered cost prohibitive. But in the industry, it is finally reaching a critical mass.
As demand for solar grows, the technology gets better and cheaper. The cost of solar panels has come down 50 percent in three years. It’s similar to any electronics, from iPods to flat screen televisions, which come down in price the longer they are on the market, said Queen.
But in the meantime, the state has offered substantial tax incentives to spur solar development.
Apparently it worked, because soon those tax incentives won’t be needed anymore, according to Matt Card, director of business development for Suniva, which manufactures solar panels in Atlanta.
The cost of solar panels will continue to come down, while the cost of electricity continues to rise. Eventually, the industry will reach “grid parity.”
“At that point, it becomes just as cheap to build this as another power plant,” said Card.
As solar grows, so do associated jobs. FLS went from three to 50 employees in five years. The installation of the solar field in Canton provided full-time work for 15 of its staff for half a year.
The maker of the solar panels, an American company based in Atlanta, likewise is on the move. Suniva has gone from two to 150 employees in under three years. It plans to add another 75 manufacturing jobs this year to meet the skyrocketing demand for solar panels, Card said.
“There is a very tangible connection to job creation,” Card said.
It’s an industry where Haywood County is eager to make a name for itself.
“Hopefully it will be the beginning of other renewable energy projects in the future for our county,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County economic development director.
In response to the solar farm, Haywood County passed an incentive package that gives alternative energy companies up to an 80 percent reduction in property taxes for investments made here.
Maintaining solar fields requires very little maintenance and no fuel costs like other power plants do. The panels just sit there soaking up the sun. They don’t even have to be cleaned, with that job left to the rain.
It’s unknown just how long they could last. They come with a warranty for 25 years, but could last twice as long.
Solar panels do wear out over time, degrading at about a quarter of a percent a year in their output. At the end of 25 years, they could be generating only 80 percent of what they were their first year, Shore said.
A ribbon cutting for the solar field was held this week. U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, commended Progress Energy for getting on board the renewable energy train and the state of North Carolina for its progressive energy policy.
“North Carolina has really taken the first steps in that and is much further along than most states are,” Shuler said.
Shuler said he hoped WNC could become a “national hub for green energy.”
Shore was an environmental lobbyist in Raleigh for years before becoming an entrepreneur and starting his own solar company. For him, seeing the solar field up and running was emotionally moving.
“For years there was always the promise of renewable energy, but there was something standing in the way of making it happen,” Shore said. [Now,] “it’s powering real houses, and there’s a real business case behind it.”