The Growth of the Solar Industry in North Carolina

I asked my colleague Steve Wall, Policy Research Associate at the UNC Institute for the Environment, to reflect on the growth of solar in NC and to give you ideas of places where you can go to learn more.

North Carolina has long been recognized as a national leader in a number of economic sectors, from biotechnology to agricultural to tourism. The emergence of the solar industry in the state means that North Carolina can now stake a claim to being a national leader in renewable energy. Just last week Duke Energy announced that it will be investing $500 million in solar projects across the state in coming years.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association North Carolina was ranked third in the country for the amount of solar installed in 2013. As the recent announcement by Duke Energy illustrates, solar development appears to be on a path to continue this strong growth. Primarily the growth in the solar industry across the state has developed through the construction of large solar farms rather than conventional rooftop solar on homes and businesses.

The success of the solar industry in North Carolina leads to the question of how did the state best known for basketball and barbeque become a national player in solar development? There are many factors that go into answering that question. However, one critical factor assisting in the solar industry’s remarkable rise is the foundation of state policy.

When North Carolina lawmakers adopted a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) in 2007, it became the first state in the Southeast to have such a law. The REPS requires that the utility companies in North Carolina produce a certain amount of their electricity from renewable resources. The law also required that a certain percentage of the renewable generation come from solar—a provision deemed the solar set-aside. Teachers: Have your students learn more about the NC REPS and identify what other “renewable resources” can be utilized to meet its mandates. The Citizen’s Guide to the REPS from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association is a good place to start.

The increasing amount of solar development across North Carolina has not come without some controversy. In some instances, local governments, community groups, and individual landowners have expressed concerns about the impacts of solar farms. Some of the concerns include potential impact on property values, taking agricultural land out of production, and aesthetics. Faculty at the UNC School of Government released a report earlier this year to help guide local government leaders to ensure that the siting of solar farms is done in a responsible manner. Teachers: Have your students explore whether there are any solar farms (click here for a summary of Duke Energy Renewables’ commercial solar farms) in your region and whether there was any opposition to their construction. Internet research and local newspapers may be the best resources for this exercise.

The recent surge of solar development in North Carolina appears likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The long-term success of the industry remains reliant on sound policies as well as addressing issues raised by local communities where these facilities are sited. If state and local officials fail to recognize the economic value of these new industry and choose to back away from the current policies that have made the state a national leader, the Palmetto state has passed a new law that shows it is willing to take North Carolina’s place.

Teachers: For more information on solar and renewable energy policies in North Carolina and across the country the North Carolina Clean Technology Center is a great resource!

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