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Solarize program aims to make solar power affordable

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If energy activist Jim Warren has anything to say about it, solar panels one day will grace the rooftops of every suitable house, store, office and factory statewide.

But he and his Solarize NC program are taking it a few cities at a time, and the Greensboro area is next on their agenda.

“What we hope to do, we want to make solar happen for people across the economic spectrum, not just those who can afford to pay for it up front,” said Warren, executive director of the nonprofit energy watchdog group, NC WARN, based in Durham and a cosponsor of the statewide Solarize campaign.

One of the first steps along that path is the Solarize Triad initiative begun recently by Warren’s group and its partner nonprofit, Clean Energy for Us. The two groups previously ran separate, but similar “solarize” programs in several other parts of the state.

Their efforts come at a moment of increased popularity and affordability for the technology that can give home owners a lot more control over monthly power bills.

While hardly commonplace, solar panels are sprouting atop increasing numbers of North Carolina businesses and houses. Prices for solar equipment have come down dramatically in recent years. And generous tax incentives for residents and businesses have helped make North Carolina one of the nation’s leaders in wattage generated from sunlight.

The solarize idea hinges on assembling a large group of homeowners and other building owners who agree to install solar in the same period of several months.

“The more people that come in, the lower the price goes for everybody,” Warren said.

Warren and his partners got Solarize Triad off to a promising start in the past month or so. After information sessions in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, more than 100 people signed up to have solar installers assess their buildings as potential sites for solar panels.

NC WARN built a name for itself over the years fighting nuclear power plants as dangerous and costly, but Warren said spreading the gospel of solar energy fits a similar niche.

“It chips away at Duke Energy’s argument for building new power plants,” Warren said.

Solar power has been around for decades, becoming more common in recent years as part of the clean-energy movement that encourages utilities to produce more power from renewable sources.

Duke Energy owns more than 20 solar farms around the country, including 13 in North Carolina with several more planned in the eastern part of the state. Just last month, the utility bought a controlling interest in a California company that designs and sets up solar arrays for commercial customers.

Private businesses deploy solar units to bring down operating costs. For example, Highwoods Properties’ Enterprise Park II building on Brigham Road in western Greensboro sports hundreds of power-producing solar panels on its roof.

Meanwhile, the economics of rooftop solar power for the individual home owner have changed markedly, spurred by tax incentives for those who add solar systems, Warren said.

Uncle Sam offers a credit on federal taxes worth up to 30 percent of the total cost, while North Carolina is even more generous. The state currently provides a credit up to 35 percent of solar costs.

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In addition, retail prices for solar equipment plummeted about 80 percent in the past five years with the increasing popularity, Warren said. That means that after the federal and state tax credits for solar installations, a home owner could conceivably put a solar system on the roof for roughly $6,000 in net cost, he estimates.

Warren acknowledges that, even at $6,000, adding solar power would make too big a dent in the budgets of most lower-income families, who also might not be able to use the tax credits effectively.

He wants Solarize Triad to provide for lower-income people who can’t afford solar in any other way, but he and other Solarize staff members haven’t worked out the details yet.

The group tries to size each unit to provide 60 to 70 percent of the power needs for the home or other building. A homeowner should recover his out-of-pocket costs in four to six years, Warren said.

Adding a solar unit makes sense financially if a house or business has a roof that catches sufficient sunlight, said Jeff Redwine, co-owner of the Renewable Energy Design Group in Lewisville.

“It’s like putting money into a fund where you can anticipate a good return on your investment,” said Redwine, whose company is one of several working with Solarize Triad.

A recent study by a Duke University researcher found that North Carolina ranks first in the South and fourth in the nation for the total amount of solar-energy production.

North Carolina’s geography and climate play major roles, Redwine said. The state averages about five hours of sunlight per day in a setting that is not too humid, unlike some places that seem as though they’d be better positioned, he said.

“Greensboro is better for solar than Houston, Texas, because of that,” he said, adding that humidity “diffuses the light coming down” in ways that sap its strength.

Duke Energy works readily with home owners and installers on rooftop solar projects, said company spokesman Randy Wheeless.

Part of the standard agreement calls on the utility to buy excess power from rooftop systems during times when they produce more power than a house or business needs.

But Wheeless said Duke Energy puts greater stock in larger, commercial solar projects that generate more electricity and make more sense for a network trying to provide power for the masses.

“Our major focus has been on the large-scale solar farms,” Wheeless said. “That’s the most effective way of introducing solar into the grid.”

Warren said he worries that Duke Energy and other utility giants have it in for rooftop solar because they fear it will detract from their business if it becomes too popular.

But the rooftop solar movement has nothing to fear from the nation’s largest utility, Wheeless said.

“That’s just untrue,” he said in an email. “Folks are free to look at buying rooftop solar for themselves ... anytime.”

But there’s no denying homeowners and businesses with solar units on their roofs are a distinct minority. Duke Energy has 3.2 million customers statewide; only 2,000 of them have rooftop solar, according to statistics from the Charlotte-based power company.

Jim Warren plans to do something about that, one roof at a time.

Contact Taft Wireback at (336) 373-7100, and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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