The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday December 9th

Solar energy sees storm clouds approaching

North Carolina became the fourth state to reach one gigawatt of installed solar energy power last week and leads the American southeast in providing clean energy to consumers — but the milestone comes at a challenging time for the state.

Solar energy has become a common sight recently, with solar-umbrellas making an appearance outside UNC's Student Union over the summer and solar panels being installed at Carrboro High School. 

In addition to environmental concerns, advocates for clean energy emphasize job opportunities and cost-saving as reasons for the advancement of solar developments.

“The solar industry is providing the equivalent of 4,000 full-time jobs and that is just solar,” said Allison Eckley, spokesperson at the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. “Most of the solar jobs that we are speaking of are helping in the construction period and those have been really good for particularly rural areas."

The impact of job opportunities in areas outside of major cities has also led to increased attention from other southeastern states like Georgia and South Carolina, said Steve Wall, policy research associate for the UNC Institute for the Environment.

In terms of economic costs to consumers, Eckley said the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association has only seen cost-savings. But misinformation has circulated. She said while energy rates remain high, they would have been even higher without solar energy in North Carolina.

Pro-renewable governmental policies — which Wall said were intrinsic to the growth of the solar industry — have recently undergone challenges from the N.C. General Assembly and opponents of government initiatives.

In 2007, a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard was put in place mandating utility companies to purchase part of their energy from renewable energy generators. The standard, which currently stands at 6 percent, will eventually freeze at 12.5 percent unless challenges from opponents halt it altogether. 

Another measure attributed to North Carolina’s leading position in America’s clean energy economy is the Renewable Energy Investment Tax Credit. The tax credit decreases the cost of producing renewable energy for production companies, which is designed to keep renewable energy competitive. 

But the General Assembly recently decided the tax credit will face a sunset provision at the end of this year, thereby ending tax credits.

Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, said tax credits give a special deal to specific industries while the John Locke Foundation favors limited government interference. 

“It has nothing to do with solar incentives … It is the principle of the idea,” Sanders said.

Last week, a Chapel Hill clean energy forum discussed the future of the solar industry in North Carolina. Wall said speakers ranged from worried to optimistic over the lack of the tax credit. 

“We were definitely disappointed to hear that the sunset was included in the latest budget, but we know that North Carolina’s clean energy industry and economy have been resilient,” Eckley said.

"Efforts to overcome recent challenges include looking at innovative ways of financing," Wall said.

Eckley said solar projects might rely on the Safe Harbor Act, which gives some utility solar projects additional time to use tax credits beyond the sunset provision if their projects are reasonably close to completion and if they pay certain fees.

“This isn’t the first time that we faced challenges,” she said.

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