Utility-Scale Solar Powers North Carolina’s Economy

May 5, 2017
Posted in News
May 5, 2017 TerraSmart

State’s solar boom drives revenue and jobs

North Carolina’s clean energy industry is fueling growth across the state. Valued at $6.4 billion, the sector boasts nearly 34,000 jobs — up 31 percent since just 2015. Solar and energy efficiency boots the economy, generate new tax revenue, create lucrative profits for developers and save ratepayers money – all while conserving North Carolina’s land and air.

While solar is going gangbusters now, can it continue to thrive? What dynamics could sustain such growth? At TerraSmart, we believe innovation and technology are what it’s going to take to keep clean energy driving forward.

Clean energy gives life to 1,000 companies in the Old North state

According to the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA), there are about 1,000 firms across the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors, including solar, wind, storage and the smart grid. For nine years, the non-profit’s Clean Energy Census has taken the pulse of this thriving market to measure its impact. The two top performers include:

  • Energy Efficiency – Encompassing 40 percent of clean energy companies, this segment employs more than 16,000 people and brings in over $2.5 billion.
  • Solar PV – Representing one-fifth of the state’s clean energy companies and recording the second-highest earnings in the sector, solar creates nearly 5,500 skilled jobs and accounted for $1.4 billion in 2016.

Policy drives solar’s quick rise

Solar has flared in North Carolina, where utility-scale installations have helped make it number two in solar, just behind California.

Market dynamics like falling commodity prices for agricultural crops and tech company demands for cheap land and power have been decisive factors for regulators and policy makers to put solar-friendly incentives in place.

In 2007, North Carolina became the first Southeastern state to adopt a renewable energy portfolio standard (REPS) that mandates increases in renewable energy production. Today, 28 other states have adopted the standard, too.

But with a renewable energy target of 12.5 percent, it trails far behind states like Hawaii that are pushing toward a 100 percent renewable target. There is still plenty of room to grow; solar generates only three percent of the state’s electricity at the moment.

Government incentives also played a key role in boosting solar farms by granting developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs through a program that expired at the end of 2015. These credits helped drive solar’s expansion, brought in tax revenue, and encouraged solar investment of $4.4 billion over the ten year program.

North Carolina is not alone in dropping its tax credit program, however. Many states let their programs expire as regional solar markets began to flourish.

While it still ranked second place based on total solar installed, North Carolina’s new installed capacity dipped to fifth place in 2016, down from second the previous year. But analysts put the state back on map with over one gigawatt projected for 2017 and 3.7 gigawatts projected over next the 5 years.

Farmers reap solar crops in the Old North State

As proven in the world’s solar markets, incentives work. Since its adoption, North Carolina’s REPS saved utility customers $162 million through investments in low-cost, clean energy resources. The state’s tax credit also contributed to the development of utility-scale solar, which makes up most of the three gigawatts of solar capacity in North Carolina today.

One gigawatt has come from converting farmland into lucrative solar farms. In 2016, solar installations occupied about 9,000 acres of former agricultural lands. While that’s a negligible portion of North Carolina’s 4.75 million acres of cropland, it sets and important trend that’s likely to continue.

The rise in solar came as crop prices, other than tobacco, dropped in the Southeast. Crops like cotton and soybeans have fallen by 70 and 30 percent respectively. Because solar projects offer stable income not affected by commodity markets, the appetite for PV production is still going strong.

Tech giants push North Carolina to new solar heights

The solar market has thrived as tech companies have moved in to take advantage of local incentives and some of the lowest electricity prices in the country. Giants like Apple, Google and Facebook are on the way to powering their data centers with 100 percent renewable energy.

Data centers, known for using massive amounts of power, are driven by consumers’ voracious digital appetite. So it’s no surprise that managing data accounted for seven percent of global electricity usage in 2015, and could climb to as high as 12 percent by this year. Some of the top solar buys in the state include:

  • 60-megawatt solar farm offsets Apple’s Maiden data center and pushes the company towards its 100 percent renewable energy goal. When built, the plant was the largest private facility in the country.
  • Facebook gets more than two-thirds of its energy from renewables and continues to demand more from Duke Energy, the largest utility in the US, to supply its biggest data center, which is located in North Carolina.
  • As part of its 100 percent clean energy goal, Google has purchased 2.5 gigawatts of renewables worldwide, including 61 megawatts of Duke Energy solar power for its North Carolina data centers.
  • As a result, Duke made its single largest clean energy investment to date, pumping $500 million into North Carolina. This alone grew the state’s solar portfolio by 60 percent.

Duke’s stellar solar position starts to dim

Duke Energy owns and operates about 500 megawatts of solar capacity in North Carolina, both through its regulated utilities and Duke Energy Renewables, its independent power producer. It utility recently invested more than $4 billion in clean energy and plans to invest $3 billion more over the next five years.

In addition to building its own, Duke has been driving solar deployment through the acquisition of more than 700 large-scale solar facilities around the state – adding nearly 1.7 gigawatts of solar capacity.

In 2017, Duke plans to add 400 megawatts of new capacity in the Piedmont and western portions of the state and has also scheduled to begin operation at its 60-megawatt Monroe Solar Facility in Union County.

Analysts expect a strong 2017 in North Carolina, but Duke has begun to introduce new barriers that pose a concern to utility-scale developers. It says at least a dozen of its 1,500 substations may require grid upgrades to handle solar, which could run from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars each.

The utility also wants to ban third-party sales of solar and would like to make developers compete for the right to build new farms. Under its proposed changes, developers would have to respond to utility requests and bid for solar projects – a controversial model that has been used successfully in California and Georgia.

Not only that, but under a recent proposal to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, Duke would pay about 30 percent less for solar energy. Not only that, but under a recent proposal to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, Duke would pay about 30 percent less for solar energy, limit standardized contracts to installations of 1 megawatt or less and limit contract terms to 10 years.

TerraSmart is the right partner for profitable solar

While uncertainty remains, 2017 looks strong for North Carolina’s solar developers and TerraSmart is poised to help drive profitability in utility solar.

Duke bought the TerraSmart-built Gaston project in 2016 to add 7.1 megawatts to its growing portfolio. TerraSmart expedited construction on the project site’s steep, undulating terrain with its new TF2 flexible racking system, built on years of success managing grade tolerances up to 36 percent.

And thanks to its innovative racks and terrain expertise, TerraSmart can cut installation time by more than one-third to get utility-scale facilities online faster. To stay on top in today’s hyper-competitive environment, developers need ingenious ways to save costs, protect vulnerable margins and offer the most competitive levelized cost of energy.

EPCs and developers gain momentum with the right racking partner. TerraSmart drives profitability with industry-defining racks and turnkey construction to shave costs and tighten schedules. And that means fast turn-around in an uncertain market.


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