As North Carolina Steps Up For Solar, Controversy Follows


North Carolina looks like a great place for solar right now. According to NPD Solarbuzz, the state ranked second behind California in new solar photovoltaic capacity last year. North Carolina jumped ahead of Arizona – now in third place – and New Jersey, which fell to fourth place.

NPD Solarbuzz also noted that about 80% of the new solar capacity was in utility-scale projects. In North Carolina, Duke Energy owns and operates several solar farms, and various entities have announced new programs that encourage homeowners to install solar, generate their own electricity and sell the excess to Duke. Some local installers, however, feel they are getting shut out of the market.

Solarize Asheville was a pilot program by the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute. Consumers could sign up to purchase solar and get a group discount based on the number of people who enrolled. When the sign-up period ended in November 2013, 370 people had signed up to have the installation company conduct a site assessment at their home. As of the end of January, the installer had performed 280 site assessments, and 32 people had signed contracts.
Katherine Bray, program director for Solarize Asheville, predicts about 100 participants will sign contracts to install solar by the Feb. 28 deadline. Depending on how many people do sign up, participants will end up paying from $3.58 per watt to $4.14 per watt, with an average size of 5 kW.

Prices for solar have decreased over the past few years, but Bray says that is not necessarily apparent to the average homeowner. ‘The barrier in solar is not the overall cost,’ she says. ‘It's the high upfront cost.’

Many homeowners do not have the $20,000 to pay to own an installation outright, so the program will offer information on financing.

Solarize Asheville also addresses other barriers to solar, such as confusion over tax credits, permitting and interconnection with the utility. The installer that Solarize Asheville chose through a request for proposal process last year will handle those details. Another barrier is indecision. Usually homeowners need nine months to two years to consider solar, Bray says, but the deadline and the limited-time offer are supposed to speed up that decision.

Bray says the program has been successful. ‘Some of the folks have had their installations, so it did what it was supposed to do: jump start clean energy for residents,’ she says. ‘It is a really huge success story in Asheville.’

Others say it is too early to tell whether Solarize Asheville is destined for success.

‘What we are waiting to see is if that turns into actual installations,’ says Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University. ‘That is the question mark.’

The N.C. Solar Center is developing Solarize Raleigh, which is currently in the process of choosing an installer. The program also relies on the group purchasing model that will bring volume discounts to residential solar purchasers. Kalland explains that the N.C. Solar Center plays the dual role of trying to lower costs for consumers while working to nurture and grow the solar business.

‘We are working hard on finding common ground for those two goals,’ Kalland says. ‘That's the concern about other programs in North Carolina – that they were designed in a way that is more focused on consumer cost issues, less focused on industry.’

There has been some pushback from the industry. Jason A. Epstein, executive vice president of Baker Renewable Energy in Raleigh, sees a flaw in the basic premise of solarize programs. ‘Everyone is under the assumption the industry is ripping people off or we don't know how to run businesses,’ he says.

The N.C. Solar Center received a grant for Solarize Raleigh from the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership and was endorsed by the Raleigh City Council. Epstein sent a letter to the Raleigh City Council noting that the program is not good for locally owned businesses. Small installers will be shut out of the opportunities, he says, because the solarize program will choose one annointed installer. Thus, the program interferes with the market.

‘You shouldn't have to wait for your neighbors to get solar so you can get a good price,’ Epstein says. ‘People should not have someone come in and say, 'This is the plumber you are going to use; trust me – it's a good price.'’

Epstein is offering his own program with non-tiered pricing at $3.50 per watt. While he questions the N.C. Solar Center's concern about local installers, he says other interest groups with agenda-driven goals are intruding on the scene. Epstein alleges that Solarize Charlotte is run by Greenpeace and that Solarize Durham is backed by NC WARN, a nonprofit organization focused on climate and energy issues.

Kalland acknowledges that Solarize Raleigh has created more controversy in the installer community than organizers would have predicted. ‘We are working to address that,’ he says. ‘Once the program is out there, it will be successful.’

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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