How North Carolina is becoming a solar leader

How North Carolina is becoming a solar leader

North Carolina flag
ShutterstockJiri Flogel

This article first appeared at Just Means.

Today’s energy picture is a complex one, with many factors influencing the direction a given region might take in selecting the type of energy technology they want to move forward with.

Obviously, resource availability is a crucial concern. If you want to choose solar, you’ll want to have lots of sunshine. The same is true for wind, hydro, geothermal or even coal, for that matter. But many other factors come into play including policy, infrastructure and the level of concern over issues that go well beyond the local area.

Take North Carolina, for example. The state added a great deal of solar capacity last year, 335 MW to be precise. That’s all but 2 percent of the renewable power added. North Carolina ranked 18th in the nation for the total hours of sunshine per year.

Politically, the state has been teetering between left and right. Barack Obama won the state in 2008 but then lost it in 2012. In fact, the state has swung hard to the right, with Republicans now controlling all three branches. That move is reflected in the fact that despite adding all that solar in 2013, much of which was the result of a Renewable Portfolio Standard passed in 2007, renewal of that legislation failed last year.

Still, the momentum already was there. Government support in emerging endeavors such as this acts as the kindling. Once private investors get involved, the fire is harder to put out. Private investment in solar project over the past five years reached $2.1 billion. That, according to Pew Research, is expected to grow by $8.1 over the next 10 years, bringing the Tar Heel State an additional 2.6 GW of solar capacity, close to what California has today.

Contained within the language of the 2007 standard were provisions that required electric cooperatives and municipal utilities to obtain 10 percent of their electricity from either renewable sources or efficiency by 2018. It also required investor-owned utilities to obtain 12.5 percent of sales from such clean sources by 2021. These provisions will help to drive that growth.

Several other factors have contributed.

First, the state offers a 35 percent investment tax credit, above and beyond whatever the federal government is offering.

From an infrastructure perspective, a smart grid allows for substantially better use of renewable energy. North Carolina’s Research Triangle is a hotbed of activity in this area, housing nearly 60 firms that specialize in this sector. The presence of this research center, as well as the universities, also acts as a catalyst for this development, as researchers attract funding that supports demonstration projects that eventually get scaled up.

Altogether, revenue (PDF) from clean energy projects totaled $2.67 billion from 2007 to 2013. That’s nearly 20 times more than the state incentives of $135.2 million, demonstrating how good an investment this has been for the state. From a jobs perspective, this also has been good. The Brookings Institution included three North Carolina metro areas within the top 100 U.S. cities for jobs in the clean energy and environmental fields: Raleigh-Cary, Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill and Greensboro-High Point.

Additionally, second-order economic benefits also have accrued as companies with large data centers, including American Express and Apple, have chosen North Carolina as a site of choice for new data centers. These attract more jobs and bring more revenue into state coffers. Are any of you other states listening?