Last year, Raleigh solar company NC Solar Now installed 615 solar panels on the roof of a local office equipment company’s headquarters. The company, CEI is located off of Glenwood Avenue, near RDU airport. The solar panels will reduce the company’s power consumption from Duke Energy by nearly 80 percent, and thanks to federal and state incentives, CEI will see a full payback on its initial investment in five years.
“The super neat thing is our solar panels are arranged to spell “CEI,” and you can see that if you’re flying over us on the flight path,” says CEI President and COO, Blake Alford. “It’s impressive.”
A new report from citizen-funded advocacy group Environment North Carolina ranks Raleigh among the top cities in the nation for solar power installations in 2014, among several cities in California and in the southwest.
North Carolina ranked second in total solar capacity added last year, and the report, “Shining Cities,” found that Raleigh had enough solar capacity to power more than 2,500 homes, just slightly less than San Francisco and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
City Councilmember Russ Stephenson says investing in solar is a “smart business decision,” because it will save citizens money over time, will reduce pollution and the impacts of climate change and helps Raleigh continue to brand itself as a “highly desirable, 21st century city of innovation.”
The report ranks Raleigh 11th in total solar installations per person.
Kathy Miller, the co-founder of Cary-based Yes Solar Solutions, says the per-person ranking is somewhat misleading since most of the city’s solar production comes from large solar installations, like CEI’s, and solar farms; only 6 percent of homes and small businesses have installed solar systems.
“There is a huge growth opportunity in residential rooftops and small commercial rooftop (solar installations),” Miller said. “But it takes incentives to do that.”
Several bi-partisan bills have been filed in the Legislature (most recently yesterday) to extend the 35% renewable energy tax credits beyond their 2016 expiration date, and to encourage completion in the energy market through third party sales. But Duke Energy is “actively fighting” against both measures, according to Environment North Carolina’s director, David Rogers.
“We need to convince state leaders to continue the policies that have allowed solar to shine and convince other cities to follow the lead of Raleigh in terms of making them more solar friendly,” Rogers said.
Raleigh and the Triangle region are home to several solar installation companies, like Yes Solar Solutions and N.C. Solar Now, which installed CEI’s solar panel system. Yes Solar’s Miller says the city of Raleigh makes it easy for consumers and businesses to install solar systems by granting permits swiftly.
Nonprofits NC Warn in Durham and Next Climate in Carrboro sponsored four solarize programs in 2014 to help drive down the costs of installing solar for consumers. Municipalities can sponsor solarize systems as well; in 2009, Portland, Oregon sponsored the first solarize program in the country. For the solarize program to work, the sponsor does the marketing and outreach for solar installation companies, to bring down installation costs for both consumers and businesses.
Miller says both nonprofits will sponsor more solarize programs in 2015, including one starting in April in western Wake County which will bring solar to parts of Cary, Morrisville and Apex. Another program, Solarize the Research Triangle, will encourage employees at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill to compete to “out-solarize” each other.
“Solar prices have fallen in the last five or six years, but they have stabilized in the last year and a half,” Miller says. “It’s not going to get much cheaper than it is now.”
A recent report by RTI International and the Scott Madden Consulting Group found that solar has a 20 to 1 payback rate. For the $135 million North Carolina has put into the tax incentives for solar, the return has been $2.6 billion, and the solar industry—which has created 20,000 jobs in the state in the last seven years—is growing twenty times faster than the total economy.
“Extending the tax credit would help consumers, small businesses and solar installation companies,” Miller says. “(While some people say) solar is pushing electricity rates up, it’s actually decreasing rates if you count all the money that goes out of the state to buy coal every year, manage acid rain, repair nuclear facilities and deal with coal ash.”