ASHEVILLE – Despite topography¬†and other obstacles that can dim solar energy prospects in the mountains Buncombe County is set to become the site of the biggest public solar boom in North Carolina, a state that is second in the country in solar.
Collectively, Buncombe County government, the City of Asheville and an individual initiative at Isaac Dickson Elementary School are spending $11.5 million on systems that will generate seven megawatts of power and put out enough energy for the equivalent of¬†829 homes (though the energy will go mostly to powering the public buildings).¬†A portion of the cost will be returned in the form of rebates while more¬†than half of the Isaac Dickson funds were donated. Projects are slated for completion on various dates through 2022.
The move comes after local governments, such as Asheville declared “climate emergencies” in the facing of rising global temperatures.¬†
Of the 48 projects, most of the power will come from 40 installations contracted by Buncombe for county-owned buildings ranging from the Leicester Library to Asheville Middle school.
“It‚Äôs really exciting to see¬†the projects¬†come to fruition and see the political will to do them,” said Evan Becka, president and founder of Pisgah Energy, the company designing the county and city sites which will include car port style solar arrays on garage roofs.¬†Becka and other supporters cited environmental reasons for the projects but also calculations they say show power bill savings will more than cover project costs.
“It’s hard to say no to this stuff, even if you don’t believe in solar,” he said.
With solar, North Carolina is an unexpected standout, being the second-highest generator in the nation after California. That’s attributed to a 2007 law that made the state the first in the Southeast to require investor-owned utilities¬†to get 12.5% or more of their energy from renewable sources or through efficiencies.¬†
“It really spurred solar earlier in North Carolina than other places,” said Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless.
The vast majority of the state’s solar output comes from large solar “farms” in the east where land is flat and cheap and many farms have been converted, Wheeless said.
“When you don’t have that, you have to be a little more creative,” he said, noting the 5MW solar power plant Duke plans to build on the closed county landfill in Woodfin. Duke has 40 solar sites in the state ranging from 2MW to 80MW in eastern Edgecombe County.
While the mountains don’t have the benefits of vast stretches of¬†flat land, Buncombe has an unusually high public interest in the energy, proponents say. That is what is driving the boom in projects by local governments and communities, they say.
According to the NC Sustainable Energy Association, a Raleigh-based advocacy and lobbying group, the next closest municipal system to Buncombe and Asheville’s planned¬†7MW is Raleigh with 1.7MW and Charlotte with 1.2MW.
Butner has 1.7MW, though Daniel Parker, a market research analyst with the association, says that is likely federally run through a prison there.¬†
Becka with Pisgah Energy said it’s quite likely that the Buncombe projects are the biggest in the Southeast.
“I’ve worked in commercial and industrial and solar. I know all the clients in the region,” he said.
The county’s Board of Commissioners voted 7-0¬†at a July 21 meeting to borrow $10.3 million through a bond for the projects to be paid¬†back over 15 years. Duke will cover¬†$2.4 million of that cost¬†through rebates.
The vote was notable for its support by the three Republican commissioners with past opposition¬†coming from¬†GOP board members.¬†
Republican District 2 Commissioner Anthony Penland of Swannanoa said he was happy to see the cost savings ‚ÄĒ which supporters¬†said will cover more than each year’s bond payment¬†‚ÄĒ and that Asheville company MB Haynes was the selected low bidder.
“I’m glad we’re¬†using a local company to put some people work,” Penland said. “This is just a great thing.”
Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, the main proponent of the projects, said the installations¬†plus the Duke landfill plant will get¬†the county to about 30% of¬†its 100% renewable energy goal set for 2030. But Newman said he would like to advance the goal to 2024 in order to more quickly reduce climate-changing carbon emissions.
“Climate change is the greatest threat to our children and all that will come after them, and rapidly transitioning to renewable energy is the primary solution to the threat,” he said.
But the best path to implementing¬†solar may be up for debate. Dave Hollister, president of Weaverville-based Sundance Power Systems that is working on the Isaac Dickson project, said he was excited to see large-scale¬†adoption of the technology, “that can transform our community and become a long-term asset.”
But there might be merit in the approach the elementary school used since with solar installation larger projects don’t necessarily mean cost savings, Hollister said.¬†While the school’s approach took five years to organize and fund, it will have the same capacity, 0.3MW, as the city’s. But its cost will be $428,000, while the city’s will be $788,835.
That comes from contractors having to deal with different buildings and different systems and make sure they can handle the surge of projects.
“There‚Äôs a lot of risk and the companies that bid on this have to account for that risk somehow,” he said.
40¬†Buncombe County-owned¬†project sites, at Asheville City and Buncombe County public schools and A-B Tech Community College. System capacity:¬†6.7 Megawatts. Annual production: Enough to power 767 homes. Cost: $10.3 million
7 City-owned project sites on the Wall Street Parking Deck (3 projects), Burton Street Community Center, Shiloh Recreation Center, Fire Station 10 and Fire Station 11.¬†System capacity:¬†0.3MW. Annual production: Enough to power 32 homes. Cost:¬†$788,835
1 site at Isaac Dickson Elementary School. Power:¬†0.3MW. Annual production: Enough to power 30 homes. Cost: $428,000.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Please help support this type of journalism with a¬†subscription¬†to the Citizen Times.