Solar: A Down East Powerhouse

By: Nicholas Garafola

June is Solar Energy Month and the perfect for opportunity for North Carolinians to consider the role of solar energy in the eastern part of the state.  NC is already a powerhouse for solar, and sunny Down East holds an untapped potential to make the state the national leader in solar.

Down East historically refers to the group of communities east of Beaufort in Carteret County in the Coastal Plain region of the state. Recently, though, the term has been broadened to encompass the central Coastal Plains region of the state. This low-lying land that used to be tobacco country has seen a decline in past few decades.  However, solar energy could be a modern day savior for a region often seen as being left behind.

The Down East’s flat and plentiful land makes the region suitable for photovoltaic (PV) systems, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, and solar thermal systems, which convert sunlight into hot water.  

Down East has the best solar projected resources in North Carolina.  It might seem odd to consider NC as the chief competitor to the hot, bright deserts of the West.  North Carolina might not be as bright as New Mexico or Arizona, but North Carolina’s success in solar occurs due to dependable solar resources and the efforts of hundreds of local businesses. 

Once viewed as being too expensive, recent price declines make solar more favorable for farmland.  According to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), the cost of a completed solar PV system has dropped by 27 percent over the past year, while the price of the typical solar panel has declined by 60 percent since early 2011.  The cost of installing and using solar is now within reach of landowners.  

Unlike traditional crops, solar installations offer a long-term, fixed source of income and are not susceptible to damage from droughts or floods.  In the event of cloudy days, solar cells can operate at partial capacity.  The direct benefits of solar for the consumer are long term, but immediate benefits include an influx of local jobs, revenue for local governments and ultimately, higher property values.  Photovoltaic systems installed in rural areas also reduce dependence on aging infrastructure and decrease the need to invest in new transmission.   Finally, solar energy is renewable energy option for which the fuel--sunlight--is free!

Devoting land to solar energy is not just a sustainable option, but a lucrative one.  The North Carolina Solar Center describes lease rates for large-scale solar installations, some 100 acres or more, as higher than other uses for the land.  For North Carolinians with large tracts of land, solar farms can occupy fields that once grew tobacco.

Even for landowners who are not looking for a new cash crop, installing solar can be a cost-effective option.  Solar thermal and photovoltaic arrays can offset the costs of fuels to heat water and provide electricity for farming and other industrial or commercial processes.  As fuel prices rise over time, the cost savings offered by solar will only increase.  Down East, solar installations can protect home and business owners from the inevitable price increases of fossil fuels.

North Carolina’s low lands already feature a solar energy milestone. In St. Pauls, FLS Energy recently completed the nation’s largest solar thermal system that provides Prestage Farms with up to 100,000 gallons of hot water per day.  The seven-acre farm will reduce more than 35 percent of the total annual cost of heating water for the company.  Through an arrangement in which Prestage will purchase the hot water at a lower cost than water heated by fossil fuels, FLS Energy completed the project at zero upfront cost to the company.

Of course, numerous economic benefits of harnessing energy from the sun apply to suburban and urban customers. Development of rural solar PV systems can also reduce dependence on aging infrastructure and decrease the need to invest in new transmission. Solar PV systems can help offset the cost of maintaining, repairing and upgrading an increasingly strained power grid. 

Whether you run a large-scale farm or a household, solar energy can be a low-cost, long-term energy solution.  Advancements in solar provide low-carbon options for consumers and has the added benefit of supporting North Carolina industries.  Given the abundant sunlight and flat land, solar energy is a sustainable path forward for Down East.

And that is good news for all of North Carolina.


Article Resources:

Map courtesy of the NREL.

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