Photo: Rockwell Solar in Rockwell, NC
Solar energy technology is a powerful form of energy. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the amount of sunlight the earth receives in an hour and a half is enough to supply the whole earth’s energy needs for one year. Thanks to continually improving technology, solar energy has the growing potential to power our everyday lives. Solar energy generates no greenhouse gases, which makes it a go-to clean energy resource for the future. I’m going to provide you with a basic rundown of solar energy, and I mean basic.
There are two main technologies to harness the power of the sun – photovoltaic (PV) systems and concentrating solar power (CSP) systems. Most people are generally familiar with PV, which is utilized in solar panels. With this technology, photons from sunlight are absorbed by the cells in a panel, which creates an electric field and causes electricity to flow. A panel is basically a chain of PV cells connected together in order to boost the power output of the individual PV cells. A single PV cell typically produces about one or two watts of power. A total of 1,000,000 watts is equal to 1 megawatt (MW), and 1,000 MW is equal to 1 gigawatt (GW). For reference, the largest PV system in the United States is in California, which produces 579 megawatts per year and contains 1.7 million panels. This plant produces enough energy to power 255,000 homes.
CSP systems use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that convert solar energy to heat, which is then used to produce electricity. CSP is mainly used in large power plants and is not for residential use. These systems produce energy on much larger scales when compared to PV systems. I hope you’ve all enjoyed your science lesson for today!
NC Serves as the Second Most Solar-Producing State
According to data from the United States Energy Information Association, North Carolina had a 36% growth in solar energy production. This secured NC as the number two solar-producing state in the nation, second only to California. Thanks to Randy Wheeless of Duke Energy, I was able to get the scoop on solar powered initiatives locally and statewide. Duke Energy has 40 solar facilities in NC and has invested more than $1 billion in renewable energy statewide. In 2018 alone, Duke Energy was able to connect 500 MW of new solar capacity, which is enough to power approximately 100,000 homes at peak output.
The 7-megawatt Woodleaf Solar Facility is the only solar farm Duke Energy owns and operates in Rowan County. This facility powers roughly 1,000 homes and is the largest solar facility in Rowan County. Randy tells me that there are other companies that own solar facilities in the county, and Duke Energy buys the output from 17 local farms to deliver to customers. “The market is growing in the county,” Randy says. “In addition to buying from solar facilities in the county, Duke Energy also has roughly 250 customers with rooftop solar panels.” Duke Energy offers residential and business customers solar energy programs including solar rebates and incentives, little to no upfront costs through leasing, and community solar that allows customers to utilize solar energy if they are unable or choose not to install solar on their property.
O2 EMC is another company who saw Rowan County’s solar potential. Salisbury Solar is a 3.75 MW solar farm located in Salisbury, and Rockwell Solar is a 3.5 MW site. The Salisbury Solar site could provide enough electricity to 708 households. O2 EMC has several solar farms throughout North Carolina and partners with Sun Raised Farms to use sheep, bees, and “other sustainable farming practices” to maintain their solar sites. Sheep are used at the Rockwell Solar site to maintain vegetation and are going to be used for the Salisbury and Woodleaf sites, as well. Solar farms are a great way to utilize land for a dual purpose. A farmer can have a sustainable place to help raise grass-fed livestock while solar power energy is being generated for customers at the same time.
Energy Efficient Campuses
Local schools are getting in on the solar action, as well.
In efforts to lead the educational and local community in more sustainable practices, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has embarked on an extensive solar initiative. The college was awarded a substantial million-dollar donation from local philanthropists, Fred and Alice Stanback. This first investment helped fund Rowan-Cabarrus’ first solar project covering two of the college’s five rooftops. The construction of this 315 kW (DC) rooftop produces an estimated 425,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year!
The Stanback’s second major donation was $2.68 million – the largest gift ever made to Rowan-Cabarrus! Thanks to the Stanback’s generosity, Rowan-Cabarrus has constructed a 1.0 megawatt (DC) solar photovoltaic plant – the first of its kind for the school and community – and added rooftop solar systems to the remaining three buildings. The combined systems will generate roughly 2,000,000 kWh of clean energy per year and generate an estimated $100,000 for student scholarships and sustainability investments. Additionally, the system will allow students to participate in on-site demonstrations, witness real-time energy generation, and learn from solar professionals.
This will be the largest solar system at any community college in North Carolina!
I spoke with Dr. John E. Wear, Jr. from Catawba College about their solar energy projects. Dr. Wear is the Director of the Catawba Center for the Environment and the Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science. Dr. Wear tells me that the first solar panel installation was in 2001 on the roof of the Center for the Environment. Since then, Catawba has installed eight more systems across campus, including in the parking lot between Shuford Stadium and Newman Park. These systems include photovoltaic, solar water heating systems, extra insulation on roofs, and campus-wide water fixture replacements. These systems, when used together, are projected to save the college nearly $5 million over the next 20 years and more than $11 million over 30 years! Wow!
Dr. Wear says, “One of the environmentally friendly things we did was put the solar panels on rooftops to keep from using good land area.” He tells me that the solar energy system will also reduce annual carbon emissions by 1,050 metric tons, which is equivalent to taking 193 vehicles off the road each year. Dr. Wear states that one way to reduce emissions is by “producing electricity, but also reducing electricity.” Catawba College’s Facilities Department has focused on changing their light bulbs to energy saving LED bulbs, which helps the solar power grid go further.
“At the time we finished the installation, and I used to love to say this, we had more solar on campus, mainly solar photovoltaic, than any other NC college installation,” says Dr. Wear. Residential interest grew in 2014 when Dr. Wear and others led a campaign called Solarize Salisbury-Rowan where they informed residents across the county on how to take advantage of federal and state solar tax credits. Solar permits jumped to 114 that year, more than it had ever been.
For more information on Sustainable Catawba, click here.
As solar energy becomes more popular amongst consumers wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, more solar providers will be the key to driving down the cost of solar cells and increasing the affordability of going solar. The science of solar is constantly improving and soon solar panels could be a part of everyday life here in Rowan County.