SOLAR ECLIPSE: North Carolina among leaders in solar energy production
Once it arrives, that sunlight will be converted from photons to voltage, via photovoltaic panels baking in neat rows throughout the Catawba County countryside. Those solar-paneled fields have the capacity to power thousands of homes.
The county’s newest solar addition will come sometime in the next five years after Claremont City Council approved Monday night an agreement with Apple Inc. to start work on a new 100-acre, 17.5 megawatt farm. Apple, the California-based tech behemoth, already owns two other farms in the county.
But the trio of Apple farms adds to the already waxing solar industry cooking across Catawba County and the state.
Strata Solar powered up its newest farm in early June. The 6.4 megawatt farm was built on the Sigmon Catawba Farm in Newton. Like Apple, the June ribbon-cutting marked the Chapel Hill provider’s third solar farm in the county.
North Carolina law entices massive companies like Apple, and smaller ones likes Strata, to build solar farms in the state because it excludes certain property from the tax base. In the case of solar energy, the government eliminates 80 percent of the taxable appraised value of the systems.
Chris Gaither, a spokesman for Apple, said in a phone interview Tuesday the company doesn’t disclose site decisions, so he couldn’t comment on the exact reasons for the location. But he did offer the addition of the Claremont solar farm was because of the company’s big data center in Maiden.
The Carolinas’ biggest utility is also getting into the renewable energy game. A Green Source Rider filed by Duke Energy allows big energy users, like data centers, to offset all or a portion of their energy consumption with renewable power, which helps Apple toward its goal of being powered entirely by renewable energy.
But it’s not purely environmental sustainability concerns driving the Duke program.
Greenpeace, an independent environmental organization, wrote in a 2014 report the Duke program is “geared to prevent losing additional business to increased solar investments from customers like Apple.” The report said the Duke program was also pushed by Facebook and Google, owners of their own data centers in N.C.
Gary Cook, a senior IT analyst with Greenpeace, said Duke is actually slowing down the solar market in the state, but companies like Apple have found ways to move toward a 100 percent renewable energy model anyway.
“For companies who are aggressive about it – and Apple is definitely one of them – they have been taking advantage of the solar resource in North Carolina,” Cook said.
Regardless of motive, the state is emerging as one of the top producers of solar energy in the country through public and private work.
The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks North Carolina third in the country based on solar capacity installed in 2013. California and Arizona outranked the Tar Heel State, but the SEIA noted N.C. added enough capacity to power more than 31,000 homes — 335.4 megawatts — though most of that power is used in the commercial sector.
Cook said the future of solar in North Carolina will be a push into residential areas. He said third-party companies could lease solar panels to residents to help offset their bills from Duke and at the same time use a cleaner source of electricity. Efforts like Solarize Charlotte are already aiming to lead cleaner and cheaper electricity to select communities around the city.
“Solar is ready for prime time in North Carolina,” Cook said.