Rethink hobbling solar industry

Maybe they'll get it if someone loads them onto an airplane and flies them over what once were corn and soybean fields near Hope Mills, on Roslin Farm Road. The new crop is spectacular.

The people we want on that flight are the members of the General Assembly trying to kill the state’s growing solar-electricity industry. Even an aerial photo of the site would give them a sense of the Cypress Creek Renewables solar-energy project: thousands of solar panels arrayed over 531 acres, stretching off to the horizon. The plant is one of the biggest in the eastern U.S., putting out nearly 80 megawatts of electricity - enough to power 25,000 homes.

Big solar installations like this aren’t some rich person’s toy, or a speculative venture to reap tax incentives while operating at a loss. Duke Energy, the largest electric utility in the United States, is buying the electricity from the Cypress Creek Renewables plant, and the shareholder-owned utility isn’t doing it as an exercise in charity. Solar is competitive with other generating technologies, cheaper than some.

Most industry experts call the now-prevalent generation of natural gas-powered generating plants “bridge” technology. Natural gas is a cheap, plentiful, reliable fuel for power plants today. But low prices won’t last forever, and when they rise, solar, wind and other alternative will grow.

Not only is solar the right thing to do, producers and utilities know it makes sense — and they’ve already incorporated it into their business plans.

That’s why we’re puzzled by efforts in the General Assembly to harass and slow the industry. That includes legislative repeal of solar incentives two years ago (and the industry is still growing anyway, albeit more slowly), and more recent attempts to find environmental hazards in the solar panels. Where, we wonder, are these same lawmakers in the battle against other environmental threats, like the hazardous wastes that are fouling the great rivers that supply our drinking water?

What this state needs to do is return to programs that foster development of our future power supplies. Our support programs of the past led to a robust solar industry in North Carolina, which ranks No. 2 in the country in output. The industry employs more than 7,000 people and returns millions of dollars in leasing fees a year to the landowners of solar farm sites.

Even as it was killing solar subsidies two years ago, our lawmakers were rushing to approve regulations for natural-gas fracking wells. To date, we have a grand total of zero fracking operations and hundreds of solar farms.

By the way, want to guess the top two corporate solar energy customers in the country? Apple? Amazon? Google? No. It’s Target and Walmart. Maybe our lawmakers would like to think about that as they take an aerial tour of our solar farms.