Solar shines in Catawba County | CharlotteObserver.com
Solar shines in Catawba County
Sparked by Apple, area aims to be a center of a ‘new-energy world’
By Bruce Henderson
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012
TERRELL Riding the coattails of Apple’s $1 billion data center, Catawba County is on track to become the star of North Carolina’s solar energy universe.
Apple is finishing a 20-megawatt solar farm at its Maiden data center that will be the state’s largest. It has announced a second of the same size to be built a few miles away.
A California company, meanwhile, has applied for a state permit to build a 17.5-megawatt solar farm in Claremont, and Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar is working on two 6.4-megawatt systems in the county. Duke Energy already runs a 1-megawatt solar test lab near Lake Norman.
Combined, the new solar output would easily eclipse that of any other North Carolina county. Guilford County now leads the state in operating solar systems with a total capacity of 32 megawatts, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association says.
Catawba County has already positioned itself as part of the “data center corridor” that arcs across the foothills and western Piedmont. Economic development chief Scott Millar sees new opportunity in clean energy.
“We do like to exploit our advantages,” he said. “We have an advantage now that other people don’t have.”
In addition to its solar farms, Apple plans to install the nation’s largest non-utility fuel cell by year’s end. Catawba has also won recognition for turning its landfill into an EcoComplex, which makes electricity from methane gas bubbling up from the buried waste.
Millar sees the chance for a trifecta of solar, fuel cells and energy-related manufacturing. His staff is wooing three manufacturing firms.
“We feel like those three assets, combined and collectively, are something that will be of great interest in the new-energy world,” he said.
Searching for solutions
As steam billows from the stack of Duke’s Marshall coal-fired power plant on Lake Norman, 8 acres of solar panels tilt to the sun on the plant’s northern boundary.
The expansion of solar energy means that Duke has to think of electricity in a new way. While its power plants distribute energy out across the grid, customers with solar arrays are increasingly sending energy back the other way.
Duke has to learn to accommodate the incoming energy smoothly and safely.
The $5 million test site opened in March 2011. Data pulses to headquarters in uptown Charlotte every five seconds.
Six combinations of photovoltaic panels and mounting systems are being tested for each of three categories – residential, commercial and concentrating solar. Duke is evaluating everything from the costs of wiring to panel racking systems.
“We’re testing them out to see what works best with our weather and our latitude-longitude, and which (panel) chemistry works best,” said Melanie Miller, senior project manager in Duke’s emerging technology group. “We’re really trying to understand what’s the best solution in the Carolinas.”
Some panels sit in fixed rows. Others are mounted on pedestals or racks that move the panels with the sun as it tracks across the sky.
The panels use either silicon chemistry or “thin-film” technology to harvest solar energy. Some focus the sun’s energy by concentrating it with reflective surfaces or lenses. Each offers benefits and disadvantages, often trading increased efficiency for higher costs and maintenance needs.
Solar capacities are theoretical. Because the sun doesn’t always shine, they represent a system’s actual output for no more than two to three hours a day.
On a cloudy afternoon this week, the five 100-kilowatt systems at Duke’s test site generated between 17 kilowatts and 24 kilowatts each. Another system is rated at 500 kilowatts.
“There are so many lessons to be learned when you do it yourself,” Miller said.
For example: Is it better to wash bird poop off the panels or wait for rain? The data will tell.
Apple won’t go beyond its public announcements, but says green energy will totally supply its 500,000-square-foot data center by the end of the year.
Creating ‘a new mindset’
Data centers like those owned by Apple in Catawba, Google in Caldwell County and Facebook in Rutherford County, need lots of cheap, reliable power. But they’re also being pressured by Greenpeace and other activists to use clean power.
Apple’s data center will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity, but will reach that point in stages. The electricity its solar farms and fuel cells generate will be sold to Duke, but Apple says they will be equal to 60 percent of the center’s needs.
Apple says it will handle the other 40 percent of its needs by buying renewable energy from other local and regional sources. It won’t specify those, but Apple already buys renewable-energy certificates – which certify green-energy was generated – from Catawba County’s landfill-gas project.
North Carolina ranked ninth nationally in grid-connected solar projects installed in 2011, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council reported. The 45.5 megawatts connected last year more than doubled the state’s total solar capacity.
For all that activity, solar energy still supplied only 2 percent of the state’s electricity last year.
Solar farms create few permanent jobs, and North Carolina law exempts 80 percent of the value of solar photovoltaic systems from local property taxes.
But Millar, Catawba County’s economic development chief, points out that the farms also require little in the way of county services.
“Certainly, they create a lot of investment. They’re sort of creating a new mindset,” Millar said. “What we’re trying to do is not eat up a lot of otherwise valuable real estate that could be used for very productive economic development that could be taxed.”
A cookie-cutter approach
Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar says it’s found a recipe that will deliver a growing number of solar farms and jobs. Strata plans to build 11 farms, totaling more than 70 megawatts, in Catawba and other N.C. counties this year and next.
CEO Markus Wilhelm said his company takes a cookie-cutter approach, building identical solar farms in clusters, using the same suppliers and moving work crews from one job to the next. He said Strata hired 170 workers after recent job fairs in Hickory and Charlotte.
“Equipment prices have dropped, but our company has found ways to build these projects at lower cost than anyone else,” he said. “We build it ten times and with each iteration we build it a little bit better.”
Lower construction costs make it easier to finance projects, Wilhelm said. Commercial solar projects are also eligible for 30 percent federal tax credits, accelerated depreciation through 2012 and 35 percent state tax credits up to $2.5 million.
Tax credits eventually expire, but Wilhelm is optimistic about future growth: “As an independent company, we have to find a way to be less and less dependent on subsidies.”