North Carolina is a leader in clean energy, consistently ranking in the top 10 in terms of solar energy, energy efficiency, and clean energy jobs. According to the E2 Clean Energy Jobs Report, North Carolina supplied 113,000 clean energy jobs in 2019. However, there are still ways that North Carolina can improve its access to and amount of clean energy. One way that the state can create a more accessible clean energy landscape for its residents is by better utilizing community solar.
Community solar, also known as ‘shared solar,’ is way for members of a community to share power created by a large solar facility, utilizing just a portion of the generated solar energy. In this model, members are not under any burden of putting solar panels on their home or property if they do not have the space or resources. Community solar allows multiple stakeholders to profit from installed solar panels. Utilities, co-ops, and other community organizations have the ability to sponsor community solar projects. While community solar has not yet taken off in North Carolina as it has in other parts of the country, community member financial benefit subscription is the most common method of community solar for North Carolinians.
The benefits of community solar are numerous:
- First, community solar can allow customers who previously did not have access to renewable energy access to solar power. If a person has financial constraints, they can utilize community solar panels without barriers. People interested in clean energy who do not own their home can use solar power through community solar.
- There are also financial benefits to community solar. In some areas, users can earn net energy metering credits for unused solar power that are worth close to as much as what they would pay for their electric bill. Community solar users usually get a direct 5-15% discount on their energy bills.
- Community solar can increase a community’s energy resilience, its ability to withstand disruptions in energy accessibility and availability. It is important that a state can create its own energy in times that we face limited resources.
- Finally, community solar allows households access to clean and affordable energy through shared solar power, therefore lessening their carbon footprint. When more people utilize clean energy, we ultimately can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2017, Governor Cooper signed House Bill 589, which set an agreement for Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress to create at least 20 MW of community solar in each of their territories. NCSEA was heavily involved in the plans and offered comments after each step of the process.
Fayetteville, North Carolina was the first area in the state to adopt a community solar framework. In 2019, Fayetteville Public Works began utilizing community solar for its customers who can’t afford solar panels on their home. The 1 MW community solar farm located at the Butler-Warner Generation Plant should serve as a model for future community solar projects in North Carolina because it is the first successful community solar farm in the state that allows consumers to directly invest in a clean energy future.
N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center (NCCETC) has been working on a Community Solar for the Southeast Project that targets utilities to encourage installation of community solar PV systems. The program’s next steps include acquiring the necessary infrastructure for building community solar systems.
Community solar can be especially beneficial for North Carolina to support the rural and low-income residents in the state. The southeast has more persistently poor counties than any other region in the United States, therefore its residents take on a larger energy burden than other demographics. Community solar can help lower their energy burden and create a more equitable landscape for people in North Carolina.
While community solar has proven to be both economically and environmentally beneficial, some have questioned the equitability of distribution of these programs.
A 2020 community solar guide released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance provides instruction for increasing racial and economic equity in clean energy through the implementation of shared solar. According to Subin DeVar, Director of the Community Renewable Energy Program at the Sustainable Economies Law Center, it is not enough to allow equal access to community solar, but it is required that community solar programs intentionally prioritize benefiting marginalized communities.
When adopting a more widespread method of community solar, it is important that North Carolina create a policy that allows low-income areas to receive proportionate solar energy as high-income areas. The policy needs to outwardly favor community solar in areas with lower income. If utilized correctly, community solar has proven to be one of the best options, environmentally and financially, for increasing access to clean energy.
Learn more about community solar in North Carolina here.
This post was written by NCSEA Fellow Nadia Innab.