Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Climate shifting toward solar industry in North Carolina. More solar farms to come

Local governments are catching on to the solar revolution. With the state's bill last year and Brunswick County's updated Unified Development Ordinance, the coast may soon be looking cleaner.

Brunswick County recently amended its Unified Development Ordinance with added specifications on solar farming. The state’s solar industry is growing, but the potential of national tariffs creates an uncertainty. (Port City Daily graphic /COURTESY BRUNSWICK COUNTY)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C.—Red tape appears to be aligning with solar producers in North Carolina.

Recently, regional policies have adjusted to make way for the cleaner, renewable source of energy. With the recent threat of national tariffs, the local solar industry may have enough fuel persevere.

Solar flare

Behind California, North Carolina leads the U.S. in solar electric capacity.

According to the Solar Jobs Census, North Carolina employed over 7,600 individuals in 2017.

Ally Copple, a spokesperson for Cypress Creek Renewables (CCR), said policies are adjusting alongside reductions in operating costs.

“The regulatory structure has allowed the solar industry in the state to grow tremendously,” Copple said. “Solar has brought billions of dollars in investment to the state.”

Last year, Governor Roy Cooper signed HB 589 into law. The bill developed a path toward reliable and renewable energy, according to a bill analysis by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

“House Bill 589 is a major step forward in energy policy to ensure North Carolina remains competitive,” the analysis states.

The bill did the following:

  • Required Duke Energy to procure renewable energy.
  • Developed a competitive bidding process for solar developers. This allowed large utility customers like Duke Energy to mitigate electric usage with renewable sources.
  • Created the Green Source Rider program, which allowed commercial customers greater access to renewable energy.

Copple said the passage of HB 589 has allowed the solar industry to move forward.

“The law puts North Carolina on track to continue to lead in solar energy,” Copple wrote in an email.

Cypress Creek Renewables

Copple’s California-based company is in partnership with Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), Brunswick County’s co-operative electric utility.

On March 26, Cypress Creek Renewables announced it had installed 12 solar energy storage systems in the state.

“The output of these 12 projects is sold to Brunswick EMC through a power purchase agreement,” Copple wrote.

A day later, the company announced its partnership with Cape Fear Community College’s sustainability technologies program. Cypress Creek Renewables provided a $16,500 grant to support students and instructors in the program.

Cypress Creek Renewables has hired one graduate of CFCC’s program —Zac Simoneau — and is looking for more.

The program’s director, John Wojciechowski, hopes more of his students can enter the solar industry upon graduation.

“I’m hoping that pathway continues,” Wojciechowski said. “Our mantra at the community college is to prepare students for the workforce.”

Wojciechowski has lead the sustainabilities technology program since 2010. Since then, he’s witnessed the state’s solar revolution from a regional perspective.

Cape Fear Solar

“The industry got its foothold more here on the rooftop solar side,” Wojciechowski said. 

Companies like Cape Fear Solar Systems have secured a small-scale, residential industry in town since 2007. According to spokesperson Cassandra Barba, Cape Fear Solar Systems has installed over 500 solar units in the area.

Though a majority of Cape Fear Solar Systems’ business focuses on the residential side, it also supplies the commercial sector. Barba estimates the company has equipped over 50 businesses in the region with solar systems.

With businesses and residents equipping themselves with renewable energy, Wojciechowski said the biggest change is happening in the utility sector.

“In the last five years, the growth of the utility-scale solar has really been the story,” Wojciechowski said.

Brunswick on the grid

Earlier this month, Brunswick County Commissioners approved a text amendment to the county’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). It amended the county’s regulations on solar farms.

The rural county initially looked at strengthening its regulations, but after a series of public hearings, has backed off.

Kristie Dixon, Brunswick County Planning Director, said the Planning Department made four changes to the proposed recommendations based on concerns heard in public hearings.

She said the Commissioners voted on March 19 to “eliminate size restrictions.”

Cypress Creek Renewables provided feedback to the county on its proposed changes and is comfortable with the new regulations.

“We believe the amendment adopted by the Commission is fair,” Copple said.

National tariffs

With the growing local movement toward ongoing solar partnerships, the national conversation is uncertain.

In January, President Donald Trump announced a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels, following a recommendation put forth by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

A majority of the solar industry relies on importing solar panels from Asian countries.

This could be a setback for the growth that has flourished in North Carolina in recent years.

“If the current tariff levels are fully applied to products in short supply, the solar tariff will mean that some projects will not get built,” Copple said. “This will hurt the thousands of Americans that are actively working in the solar industry.”

However, with North Carolina being far ahead of the national solar curve, the national tariffs may not be able to dim solar’s light.

“Our prices aren’t going up,” Barba said of Cape Fear Solar Systems’ future. “For us personally we’re not seeing an impact.”

Wojciechowski said the tariffs would only set the state back a few years. 

“It’s a hurdle but the industry will get over that,” Wojciechowski said.

He points to the storage projects Cypress Creek Renewables and Brunswick EMC have begun as a major indicator of that renewable energy options are not slowing anytime soon.

“Having that flexibility is really key especially for a smaller utility that has to manage a rural grid,” Wojciechowski said. “The ability to sync a large scale battery with the grid is something I think is happening on a pretty quick pace.”


Johanna Ferebee can be reached at johanna@localvoicemedia.com or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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