Solar projects catch fire

Solar power is hot.

Across Western North Carolina, a wave of solar projects have been announced over the past few months. The YWCA of Asheville plans to install 30 solar-thermal panels on its roof to heat water for the nonprofit’s pool and showers, and in Haywood County, a seven acre “solar farm” featuring more than 3,000 photovoltaic panels is planned for a former landfill site in Canton.

On the sunny side: Workers recently set up one of the largest photovoltaic installations in Western North Carolina on the roof of the Jim Barkley Toyota dealership on Brevard Road in Asheville. More than 330 solar panels were installed and tied into Progress Energy’s power grid. Acquired last week by a large national construction company, the Asheville firm that installed the panels now has a new name: Vanir Solar Construction Co. Photos by Jason Sandford

“I think what is striking is both the magnitude and quantity of the projects going on” in the region, says Michael Shore, president of the Black Mountain-based FLS Energy, a key player in the solar-farm project.

Even grander in scale is a project announced recently for the Fletcher Business Park in Henderson County. Billed by the company as the largest installation of solar-thermal heating-and-cooling technology in the world, it will include a 27,000 gallon water tank, 2.5 miles of steel piping and tubing, and 640 solar panels erected on the 900,000 square foot facility’s huge roof. Once home to Steelcase, an office-furniture manufacturer, the giant structure now houses a number of businesses. The vast array is expected to produce 1.5 megawatts of power to heat water for the complex, as well as heating and cooling for 150,000 square feet of the 900,000-square-foot facility.

As an affordable and viable alternative-energy source, it seems that solar power has arrived.

A number of factors have contributed to shifting solar energy from what many have considered an experimental, fringe phenomenon to a more mainstream energy source. A 2007 state law is pushing utilities in North Carolina to start deriving a specified percentage of their demand through renewable sources or increased energy efficiency (see below). Substantial state and federal tax credits also loom large in the equation. Meanwhile, technological advances, rising energy costs, widespread concern about global warming and creative marketing strategies have all helped illuminate the potential of sun power.

Positioning WNC as a global player

Appalachian Energy, launched just seven years ago in Asheville, started out doing hydroelectric projects. The company and its chief executive, Scott Clark, also worked on a number of other projects, including installing solar-thermal systems at 33 Arby’s restaurant locations west of Charlotte. This fall, Appalachian Energy installed 336 photovoltaic panels atop the Jim Barkley Toyota dealership on Brevard Road.

Then last week came the big announcement: The company had been acquired by Vanir Energy, a subsidiary of the Vanir Group of Companies, a large national construction firm. In an interview last week, Clark, now executive vice president of Vanir Energy, said the move will boost his firm’s goal of creating local jobs. The Fletcher Business Park project, he noted, created an immediate need for 58 workers. And Vanir’s entry into North Carolina will trigger a total of $14 million in solar-thermal projects across the state in 2009 alone, according to a company press release. Vanir plans to own and operate the systems it installs, enabling customers to take advantage of the technology without having to make a capital expenditure.

Steve Hunter, Vanir Energy’s Sacramento, Calif.-based chief operating officer, said his company’s ability to finance projects at no up-front capital cost means “We can fix the cost of energy for a customer for the next 20 years,” a highly attractive proposition for everything from prisons and hospitals to schools and office buildings.

Dale Carroll, president and chief executive officer of AdvantageWest, said his organization, a regional economic-development agency, has been working on several initiatives to boost “green-collar” jobs in the region. Vanir Energy’s acquisition of Appalachian Energy, said Carroll, “moves ahead our goal of being a global player” and stands as proof that the strategy of focusing on environmentally friendly businesses can pay off.

YWCA sees bright idea

Much of the recent interest in solar projects can be boiled down to an attractive bottom line. In the $700 billion financial-rescue plan approved by Congress in October, federal tax credits for such projects, which were due to expire at the end of the year, instead received an eight-year extension, and a $2,000 cap on residential projects was lifted.

Together with state tax credits, that makes solar projects economically feasible, says Clark. “For every dollar you invest, the federal government will give you a 30 percent tax credit. And for every dollar invested in North Carolina, the state will give you a 35 percent tax credit,” he explains. “From a financial-investment standpoint, you can see the return on the dollar.”

Tax credits aside, one big reason the YWCA decided to go ahead with its solar project is the potential savings on energy costs, says Executive Director Holly Jones.

“It makes a lot of sense for us in the long run,” she maintains, noting that the $65,000 project should pay for itself over about seven years. After that, it will help the nonprofit keep costs down when it comes to heating thousands of gallons of water for its swimming pool, not to mention showers and laundry.

And even beyond those tangible economic benefits, the YWCA “is concerned about its environmental footprint in this community. We want to be a good steward,” notes Jones. Nonprofits, she believes, “can lead the way in this green revolution.”

Utilities see the light

Utility companies have also moved into more solar projects, driven by the N.C. General Assembly’s passage last year of Senate Bill 3 established a “renewable-energy portfolio standard.” The legislation requires utilities in the state to meet 12.5 percent of retail electricity demand through renewable energy or energy-efficiency measures by 2021.

Sunny disposition: Holly Jones, executive director of the YWCA of Asheville, says the organization’s recent installation of 30 solar-thermal panels makes sense for the organization financially, as well as environmentally. The YWCA wants to lead the way for other nonprofits interested in going solar.

About half the states have similar legislation, and efforts continue in Washington, D.C., to have Congress approve a federal standard. North Carolinna is the first state in the Southeast to approve such a standard.

In October, Progress Energy signed an agreement with FLS Energy to buy the power produced by the Haywood County solar farm. FLS Energy will build, own and operate the solar array, which is expected to produce about 1 megawatt of electricity—enough to power about 1,000 homes.

“This is not a feel-good endeavor,” says Shore, FLS’s president, noting that the project will help the company meet its goal of moving solar power into the mainstream. “This represents a tremendous shift in intention.”

Martha Thompson, Progress Energy’s manager of community relations for Western North Carolina, says the utility is “aggressively trying to bring our electrical utility into the next phase” through projects such as the solar farm. The project will also be used to study battery-storage capabilities. Meanwhile, the company is exploring other forms of renewable energy, such as wind power and power produced using methane gas captured from landfills.

Not everyone thinks forcing utilities to move toward renewable sources of energy was a good idea, however. Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, calls the legislation “a bad deal for the environment.” The Sylva, N.C.-based group advocates for clean air in North Carolina.

The law, says Friedman, lifted a 25-year ban on utilities’ ability to charge ratepayers for work in progress on coal-fired and nuclear power plants. As a result, he predicts, “We’ll get a whole new fleet of power plants.” The negatives, says Friedman, outweigh the positives “like an elephant outweighs a flea.”

He calls projects such as the Haywood County solar farm “totally misguided,” because solar power is still inefficient, and building a centralized plant to feed the power grid means a lot of energy lost through transmission. “The only practical way to use solar energy is to put it on rooftops and have it produced as close to the end use as possible,” Friedman says.

That, however, is exactly what Duke Energy has in mind. The utility is hoping to get approval by year’s end for an ambitious plan to place photovoltaic panels on homes, schools, stores and other sites in a distributed-generation model that will put the power to use close to where it’s produced, which cuts infrastructure costs and decreases the amount lost through transmission. The solar panels would generate 10 megawatts of power, according to Duke spokesman Andy Thompson—enough electricity for about 2,600 homes.

“We think this distributive model is a great way to meet demand,” says Thompson, noting that Duke Energy recently announced a plan to build a solar farm in Davidson County that will produce 16 megawatts of electricity. These projects will help the company develop its technology and “pave the way for the future,” he says.

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