North Carolina has about 100 solar farms, one of the largest (200 acres, 63,000 panels) is in Davidson County in the Piedmont Triad.

Harvesting the Sun: N.C. emerges as a U.S. leader in solar power investment, energy production.

Triad Next by Justin Catanoso

A report released earlier this month by the Pew Charitable Trust extolled the virtues of a “new cash crop” in North Carolina. We know all about hogs and chickens, tobacco and soybeans. They’re not new.

What’s new? Solar. What’s really new? The realization that North Carolina is now a national leader in harvesting energy for homes and industry from the sun.

Our state, for example, didn’t have a single solar farm just seven years ago, but now trails only California and Arizona in overall solar capacity that’s been installed using photovoltaic panels. We’re also third in private investment in renewable energy with $1.2 billion invested last year – nearly all of it in solar power.

Today, North Carolina has about 100 solar farms, with several in the Triad and one of the largest in Davidson County. Solar energy produces some 557 megawatts of power statewide, or enough to light more than 50,000 homes – the fifth-highest capacity in the country.

What about jobs? There are some of those, too. The Pew report notes that 3,100 people, including about 500 in the Triad, work in jobs tied mostly to solar power. It’s a modest amount, but enough to rank North Carolina 10th nationally in job creation related to renewable energy.

It’s important to understand that this progress has been neither accidental nor purely market driven.

In 2007, as the Pew report cites, North Carolina became the first Southeastern state to adopt renewable energy and energy-efficiency portfolio standards. Electric co-ops and municipal utilities are required to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources or efficiency improvement by 2018; large utilities like Duke Energy must get 12.5 percent of sales from similar sources by 2021 – a threshold largely reached.

Remarkably, these regulations survived the GOP-led General Assembly’s efforts to roll them back last year. That’s because, the Pew report says, “state lawmakers were concerned about losing the economic benefits of these emerging industries.”

Fossil fuel calculation

Those economic benefits are now being challenged by the falling prices, however temporarily, of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal. While photovoltaic panels continue to drop in price and grow in efficiency, the lower costs for traditional power sources is extending the payback calculation for renewable energy investments at the moment.

But another calculation should be factored in, too.

There is a broad consensus among scientists and a growing recognition among policy makers that global warming – currently wreaking havoc with our coastlines and agricultural production – cannot be mitigated without a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. The largest single contributor to carbon emissions is energy production through coal- and natural-gas fired power plants.

Thus, every solar panel that’s heating hot water or creating electricity means less fossil fuel being burned to generate that energy. What’s good for the Triad and state is good for the planet.

Maybe you care about global warming. Maybe you care about reducing your company’s carbon footprint. Maybe you don’t, and care mostly about sound decisions regarding your short-term and long-term energy costs. It’s a win-win regardless, so who should consider investing in solar?

Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, says heavy users of hot water – restaurants, hotels, colleges and hospitals – should take a hard look at solar thermal. These panels use collect thermal energy, or heat, from the sun by circulating a liquid through copper tubes in a collector panel. That heat can then be used to heat the hot water for the building or to help keep the building warm. (Solar farms use costlier photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity.)

Jon Varnell, vice president for administration at Guilford College, agrees: “Solar thermal is a no brainer; if you use a lot of hot water and you’re not using solar, you’re really losing out.”

Making it pay

Varnell should know. Guilford has one of the largest arrays of solar thermal panels of any college or university in the country. Its 200 panels atop nine buildings on campus heat pretty much all the hot water needed in dorms and dining halls – more than 9,000 gallons daily. And because the school entered into a SEPA – Solar Energy Purchase Agreement – with solar-panel installer FLS Energy of Asheville, it paid nothing for the panels.

“We pay FLS for the power generated by the panels at an extremely competitive rate compared to normal utility rates,” Varnell says, “and without the carbon emissions.”

The SEPAs are critical for nonprofits such as colleges and hospitals, which aren’t eligible for state and federal tax credits available to promote renewable energy investment. But as Varnell says, “If you’re willing to slog through the details and come out with a SEPA, you can have zero upfront costs.”

Solar is still a tough call for homeowners interested in renewable energy, unless you don’t mind a payback period of a decade or more. But for a variety of small businesses, larger companies and some nonprofit institutions, the sun is rising across North Carolina on the promise of solar power.

Mike Solomon is a business development manager with the Timmons Group in Greensboro who scouts locations for potential solar farms. “If you want to save the earth and reduce your use of fossil fuels,” he says, “or if you just want to save some money, here’s an opportunity that’s looking better every day.”

Justin Catanoso, former executive editor of the Triad Business Journal, is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His column, called Triad Next, appears in the newspaper monthly.