Company puts last panel on Durham County solar farm

May. 12, 2014 @ 06:22 PM

A Chapel Hill-based solar development company is in the final stages of  building what will be Durham County’s largest commercial solar farm to date.

Strata Solar announced Monday the last panel was installed at its solar farm on 43 acres in northern Durham County.

When it’s active, the solar farm on Bacon Road in Rougemont will be able to produce nearly five megawatts of alternating current electric power.

That would be enough energy to power about 750 homes, according to Strata.

Strata’s Chief Operating Officer John Morrison said the solar farm should be operating in about two weeks, after final inspections.

Strata will sell the electricity produced by the array to Duke Energy Progress, a subsidiary of the Charlotte-based utility Duke Energy Progress.

The company is leasing the farm’s 43 acres. Generally Morrison said, landowners lease property for solar projects because it gives them a stable income for a fixed period.

“They can get some very solid income and it’s typically more income than they would get if they were trying to farm or it leasing it to someone who’s trying to farm the land,” he said.

To build solar projects, Morrison said the company looks for sites that can meet improvement requirements, where they can connect to the electric grid and there’s a willing landowner.

“We can’t concentrate it all in one place,” Morrison said. “The grid isn’t big enough, (it doesn’t) have enough capacity to take it all in one location, (so we) end up spreading it around.”

He added that the cost of solar equipment has come down “dramatically” in the past two years, and Strata Solar has gotten more effective at constructing solar arrays. He said they can build farms more quickly, with smaller construction crews.

 “We’ve gotten much more efficient,” he said.

It’s been the company’s plan all along to lower building costs enough to no longer need the state renewable energy tax credit. The state credit is set to expire at the end of 2015.

The state offers a tax credit for 35 percent of the cost of a project, up to $2.5 million per installation. That’s in addition to a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost available for renewable energy projects.

North Carolina also has a target requiring electric utilities in the state to use a combination of renewable resources and energy efficiency measures to meet 12.5 percent of electricity demand by 2021, according to Duke Energy.

The state incentives could be the primary driver of the solar development in the state, said Christine Beadle, an analyst with NPD Solarbuzz, but she said it could also be the stability of policy here.

She also pointed to an NPD Solarbuzz blog post on North Carolina that said they believe policy plays an important role but “strong levels of cooperation between (photovoltaic) project developers and the utilities is a large part of this success.”

Among the solar developers in the state, Strata has been the strongest, Beadle said in an email. The company has many projects completed, and a pipeline of projects in development. She said several other companies are finding the state to be a “successful and welcoming market” for solar.

More than half the projects in the North Carolina photovoltaic pipeline are in the 1-to-10-megawatt range, she said, but many projects over 20 megawatts are in various stages of development.

In Durham County, another developer, Arizona-based Sunlight Partners, has permission to build a five-megawatt solar array, also in the northern part of the county.

Keith Colson, vice president of operations for Sunlight Partners, said in an email that the company has the lease in place and other aspects of the project under wraps, but is waiting on a construction schedule from Duke Energy so they know when the utility will complete its side of the grid interconnection.

“They have to engineer, design, procure and construct their side,” Colson said. “That’s the schedule we are awaiting. Once we have that piece of the puzzle, then we align all of our efforts to meet them at the meter, at approximately the same time.”