Soaking in the sun: Solar energy movement comes to WNC
Solar power is on the rise across the U.S., and a campaign recently launched in Western North Carolina is urging mountain folk to join the trend.
“You can only do what you can afford to do, and now that it’s affordable, people are taking advantage of it and getting involved,” said Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, one of the two groups collaborating on the Solarize WNC campaign. “I think we’ve sort of reached that critical mass when things are turning around.”
Converting to solar requires attainable cost as well as motivation from the property owner, and prices for solar energy panels and installation have dropped dramatically over the past several years. Rooftop systems cost 29 percent less in 2013 than they did in 2010, and costs for large-scale commercial projects have fallen even further, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report. With the price drop has come an increase in solar installation nationwide — between 2010 and 2013, the amount of solar panel power in the U.S. has risen nearly five-fold, the same report said.
But that still doesn’t mean that it’s easy to make the switch.
Enter Solarize WNC, a grassroots campaign that’s part of a statewide Solarize movement. A collaboration of Clean Energy for North Carolina and The Canary Coalition, the campaign’s goal is simply to tear down the three main barriers that make solar conversion difficult for the average homeowner or businessperson: cost, red tape and knowledge.
The organization reaches out to solar installers and energy efficiency companies ahead of time, vetting their services and negotiating discount prices for clients recruited through the Solarize campaign. Solarize then provides free educational events to explain the program and get people signed up for a free solar assessment on their property. From there, contractors work directly with clients to do discounted energy audits and solar installations.
“You guys live in one of the most beautiful places around, I think, and these are all resources we’re trying to protect,” Ashley Edwards, outreach coordinator for Clean Energy for Western North Carolina, told a roomful of listeners at a Solarize forum in Franklin last week.
Though costs are coming down, using solar energy has a long history as an environmentally-based decision. That’s still a fact, according to Ben Yoke, sales manager and systems designer for Sugar Hollow Solar.
“If one person goes solar, it’s not going to change the world,” Yoke said to the group in Franklin. “We all kind of need to do it. Billions of people need to do it. And because billions of people have not done it yet, if you do it you will be leaders.”
Solar is a “clean” form of energy, meaning that it doesn’t rely limited resources like coal or oil and doesn’t require pollution-producing smokestacks to refine. The panels themselves are made of non-renewable materials, but they can last for as long as 100 years before needing replacement.
But it’s always been an expensive form of energy, hard to justify financially when stacked against more efficient and low-cost fossil fuels.
“It’s great to do for the environment, but you can’t lose too much money and stay in business,” said Ed Morris, owner of Franklin Health and Fitness Center.
But Morris hasn’t found that solar conversion is necessarily a money-losing proposition. He’s already started using solar hot water for the gym’s swimming pools and says it’s saved the business “a lot of money.” Next he has his eye on the $30,000 annually the company pays in electric bills.
“If we could finance it and save money on our electric bill, we’d be glad to do it,” Morris said.
Cost is an important consideration for Franklin resident Kathy Ratcliffe. She’s had an energy audit done on her house — a service also supported by Solarize that tells property owners how to make their buildings more energy-efficient before shelling out for bigger-ticket upgrades — but is “kind of iffy” on whether a conversion to solar electricity would be the way to go.
Though her roof faces south — the direction that receives the most sunlight — she has trees all around that would reduce the panels’ efficiency, and because she’s retired she likely couldn’t get the solar tax credit that’s an important factor in affordability.
However, she’s grateful for Solarize’s help in wading through all those variables.
“In order for someone to do it themselves, you have to do all the research, you have to buy each of the components, figure it all out yourself,” Ratcliffe said. “That’s hard. But to have someone come in and know the whole package, then you don’t have to know anything. That’s a big advantage.”
The variables certainly are many. First off, there’s the question of exposure. Latitude-wise, North Carolina is a great place for producing solar energy, Friedman said, but the mountains can complicate things. Trees are everywhere, and while a house on a southern slope may be able to make things work just fine, homes on northern slopes might have a hard time producing much solar power at all.
There’s also the issue of how to receive the power. Most people tie their solar panels to the grid, meaning that any power produced goes into the pool of energy people in that area draw from when they flip their switch. Energy produced beyond what the home consumes can be sold back to the power company for a profit. That’s the option most people go with, because being independent of the grid requires purchasing batteries, the cost of which has not declined at nearly the same rate as that of solar panels. Batteries also have a much shorter lifespan than solar panels and so need to be replaced periodically.
And, of course, there’s the size of the solar array. Aesthetics and energy generation needs can influence how many panels the property owner wants to purchase.
“The average American household uses 30 kilowatt-hours a day,” Yoke said. “We rarely put in systems that make that much.”
That’s because of the cost issue. Though solar is becoming more affordable, it’s still not cheap.
“There’s a sweet spot for residential, which is between $10,000 and $30,000,” Yoke said. “If it’s less than $10,000, the economy of scale isn’t there. Over $30,000, you’ve maxed out the state tax credit.”
A $30,000 array can crank out 30 kilowatt-hours, Yoke said, but only under the most optimal of conditions. Solar panel efficiency hasn’t changed that much over time.
But the price has changed, and with it the cost structure.
Now, some banks will grant loans for solar panel purchases, with those monthly payments sometimes winding up cheaper than the existing energy bill, Friedman said. In some states, third-party installers will put in the solar panels for a $0 upfront cost, with the homeowner agreeing to pay in monthly installments on a rent-to-own basis — a bill that would allow this practice in North Carolina is currently awaiting hearing in a House committee.
And, North Carolina also has a tax credit that can greatly reduce the cost for taxpaying individuals and companies. The credit is set to expire at the end of 2015, but a bill to extend it through 2021 has bipartisan support.
All these factors are coming together, Friedman said, to make interest “just really high in solar energy right now.”
Case in point: In this, the second of seven Solarize WNC forums planned through July, about 50 people packed the room at Macon County Public Library. A March 17 forum in Cullowhee drew 45.
Of those 45, Friedman said, “ten of them at least signed up for energy audits or solar assessments.”
“I expect that there will be quite a few installations coming out of this,” he said. “If we’re following the example of what’s happening in the rest of the state, we’re right on schedule. I think we’re doing better.”
Solarize keeps moving
Waynesville is the next stop for Solarize WNC, with a forum planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, at First United Methodist Church.
Presentations will cover the basics of technology, tax credits, utility rebates and financing, while also offering opportunities to meet experienced solar installers. Enroll for the commitment-free program at www.cleanenergyfor.us or just show up on the 21st. Future forums are planned for Bryson City, Canton, Highlands and Cherokee.
Solar in the Legislature
A trio of bills introduced to the N.C. General Assembly would have a marked impact on the landscape of solar energy in North Carolina if passed.
• The Energy Freedom Act (H245) would keep energy-generating sites — including solar arrays — installed on a person’s property to supply their house from being regulated by the Utilities Commission. This would allow companies to install solar energy systems without charging customers an upfront cost, with customers instead paying on a monthly rent-to-own basis. This system currently exists in some other states.
• H454/S447 would extend the N.C. Solar Tax Credit, which is set to expire on Dec. 31. The bill would take the 35 percent tax credit through 2021.
• The Efficient and Affordable Energy Rates Bill (H377/S483) would do three things: allow the state to issue low-interest loans for energy-efficiency and solar energy projects; create an inverted rate structure for utilities so that larger consumers of electricity pay more per kilowatt-hour while smaller consumers pay less; and create an incentive for purchasing energy-efficient household products.
The Energy Freedom Act and H454/S447 have a bipartisan list of sponsors, but all sponsors for the Efficient and Affordable Energy Rates Bill — in both House and Senate — are Democrats.