Vince Wheeler: Brighten potential for solar energy investment

May. 07, 2013 @ 01:57 AM

It has not provided much “fertilizer” the last few days, but the sun definitely has been shining on the solar farm industry in the Piedmont Triad and across North Carolina.
As the Enterprise reported last month, Davidson County is home to the largest solar operation in North Carolina, the 200-acre Linwood solar farm, which opened in 2011. It has more than 63,000 photovoltaic solar panels and generates 17 megawatts of electricity. Plans there are for an output of 28 million kilowatt-hours annually. That’s enough to power 2,600 homes for a year.
The interest in solar farms has spread to Guilford County where officials are working to adapt planning and zoning regulations to this new industry. At least five solar farms are being considered for sites in eastern Guilford, two of them on 30-acre adjoining sites on Alamance Church Road and Old Julian Road.
The Linwood solar farm has been well received in Davidson County — by local officials, by county residents and by solar industry officials — because they all worked together in planning and developing a site for the farm. The Linwood farm has generated solar power, not controversy. Guilford officials should take note.
As solar farm plans proceed in eastern Guilford, or in any location, one of the key ingredients for success seems to be the proper placement of a farm. Just as with any type of farming operation, solar farms won’t be right in every location. That’s why county and solar industry officials and area residents must work together to find the best locations for solar farms so as not to conflict with surroundings.
But the future may not be as bright for solar energy farm development in North Carolina if the N.C. Legislature repeals the 2007 law that jump-started solar investment in the state. That law required public utility companies to begin getting 3 percent of their energy from renewable sources such as solar. The percentage rises gradually to 12.5 percent by 2021, and legislators are considering slowing that rise, lowering the caps or even eliminating the requirement for power companies.
Critics note that power customers pay more for power because of the renewable energy requirement. However, stimulating more renewable energy production and use by utilities is good public policy, so it seems that legislators should look for ways to do that which don’t generate additional cost for power purchased by customers.
Perhaps a better approach — and seemingly more important to the solar farm industry — would be to enhance the state’s tax credit (and a federal tax credit) and other incentives for investment in solar energy production. Also, treatment of revenue derived from solar energy production should also be reviewed. However, it would NOT be good policy to take tax money and allocate it to “green” projects as has been done at the federal level.
I’ve always felt that solar is the unlimited energy source for the future, but research and development always have needed encouragement. We should have policies that entice private investors to take risks, but not penalize them if they are successful. Tax policy and regulatory arms of our governments seem to hold penalizing success as their first priority.
We don’t need local, state or federal governments to heavy-handedly force utilities to use lots more renewable energy. We just need governments to make producing renewable energy a more viable business venture that produces energy that utility companies will buy. Maybe our legislators and policymakers will see the light.

vwheeler@hpe.com | 888-3517