Sunny days ahead: Solar farms are a growing state trend

Apr. 07, 2013 @ 07:34 PM

There’s something new growing on the farm.
Although most motorists will probably never see them, the clusters of aluminum crossbars covered with indigo black panels are about to become part of the landscape.
Boosted by tax credits, North Carolina has become a home for solar collector farms.  In many cases, solar farms are replacing cropland that did not generate enough income from traditional farming.  But not all neighbors approve for several reasons, ranging from looks to rural compatibility, according to several residents who testified during a recent Guilford County Board of Commissioners hearing on two Sunlight Partners Inc. solar farms proposed for two 30-acre adjoining sites on Alamance Church Road at Old Julian Road.

Why Solar in North Carolina?
Just six years ago, most residents had never seen a photovoltaic panel. But since 2007, the North Carolina Renewable Energy and Energy Portfolio Standard requires power companies to provide up to 12.5 percentage of their energy sales through renewable energy sources by 2021.
State law allows collector owners to exclude 80 percent of the appraised personal property value of “all equipment used directly and exclusively for the conversion of solar energy to electricity.” That means counties are not allowed to tax most of the value of the equipment.
The state also offers a 35 percent renewable energy tax credit, one of the best rates in the country. It caps out at $2.5 million per project. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels, including installation, has fallen from about $9 a watt to $3, and could fall to $1 a watt in several years, according to estimates.
The state tax credit, coupled with a similar federal tax credit, reduces the cost of a multimillion dollar solar farm by more than half.
“It is attractive in North Carolina if a company can monetize the state tax credit,” said Keith Colson, Sunlight’s director of development for the eastern United States. “If you can, it is a great play. Whoever thought to put in the tax credit got what they wanted.”
Sunlight Partners is one of several firms obtaining land leases to erect solar array clusters. By industry standards, solar companies can pay up to $600 per acre a year for a lease.  The solar companies can either sell the electricity to individual homes or businesses or sell it to “the grids”  operated by Duke Energy Carolinas and Progressive Energy.

The Science
Even critics agree, solar farms offer clean energy with little harm to the environment. Solar arrays convert direct current electricity to alternating current through an inverter. An individual photovoltaic cell — averaging about 4 inches per side — typically converts 15 percent of the available solar radiation into about 1 or 2 watts of electrical power.
The farms do not add to the background electromagnetic field, said Tommy Cleveland of the N.C. Solar Center.
“When handled, they are unplugged, so you would have to try to get hurt handling them,” Cleveland said.
The basic science behind solar generated electricity is decades old, Cleveland said.
“The same silicon panels are used in 95 percent of all installations,” Cleveland said during the recent hearing. “Many last 20 years. They rarely leak or break, and there are no emissions. As we use more of these to generate electricity, we will use less electricity from coal plants.”
The farms also can boost the economy, said Jim Kennerly an analyst for the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. The growing industry has added 27,000 jobs in each of the last five years, Kennerly said during the hearing. The N.C. Solar Energy Association says the industry has generated $2 billion in revenue and thousands of jobs in North Carolina.
“For every dollar invested in renewable energy, there is a return of $1.90,” Kennerly said.
An investment of $12.6 million in solar farms in Guilford county could have a $24 million impact.
“The investment could double,” he said. 
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