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Assessing the state of solar in Charlotte

Ramona Sherwood, homeowner, and Matthew Dickey of Argand Energy Solutions.

Solar power is a hot topic in the renewable energy world. Tomorrow it will figure prominently in workshops at the annual Charlotte Clean and Green Event at CPCC. And the state's major utilities - Duke and Progress Energy - are under a deadline to make a certain percentage of electricity from the sun's rays by the end of the year. And yet, there are still significant limitations holding back the solar revolution in North Carolina. WFAE's Julie Rose takes a closer look - and tries to understand why the Charlotte region seems to be lagging. Ramona Sherwood likes to tell this story about the time a UPS guy came around the corner to her back door and stopped dead in his tracks. "He was surprised because most people always see them on the roof," laughs Sherwood. She has two huge sheets of solar panels perched on big poles in her back yard right where you'd expect to find the garden. They're way too big for the roof of her small three bedroom home near Lake Wylie. . . hence the poles. Tilted toward the sun, they shimmer. "I think they look pretty nice," Sherwood says. So does the check Sherwood gets every month from Duke Energy. She sells the electricity her solar panels to the utility company at about 8 cents a kilowatt hour. A statewide nonprofit set up to encourage solar energy called NC GreenPower pays an additional 15 cents per kilowatt hour. All told, the panels can earn Sherwood about $1,200 a year, depending on how much the sun shines. A meter in her garage keeps close track. "It tells you what you're receiving for the day, for the total, tells you a whole host of things," says Sherwood. She says she pays "pretty close" attention to the meter. "It's a hobby," she chuckles. A slightly expensive one: Solar panels like Sherwood's can run $40,000. The government will pay back about half of that in tax credits, but the upfront cost stops a lot of would-be solar generators. In fact, Sherwood's one of only 15 people in the entire Charlotte region with solar panels plugged into the power grid and getting paid for it by NC GreenPower. But out in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill there are four times that many people doing it. Even Asheville has more than Charlotte. So what gives? "I think nobody's doing it because nobody's doing it kind of a deal," says Chatham Olive. He's kind of a solar power evangelist who works for Argand Energy Solutions, which installed Ramona Sherwood's solar panels. "You don't look out your window and see solar on your neighbor's house," adds Olive. "So there's a certain amount of critical mass that's very important in all of this." He says another reason Charlotte's lagging in solar power may be people in college towns like Durham and Chapel Hill tend to be a little more environmentally conscious. And they're probably more willing to be patient with what Olive says is a complicated process. "All of this stuff needs to be simplified. It's a rat's nest of regulation," declares Olive. "That's just what I have to say about what we have here in North Carolina." If you want to put solar panels on the roof of your home or business and make a little money off them, you have to register with the state, negotiate with the utility company, sign reams of documents and learn to speak the language of kilowatts. It was all rather coma-inducing for several hundred elected officials and business people who showed up at a solar summit in Charlotte earlier this year. Joel Olsen of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association organized the meeting as a crash course in what it will take to get more solar power in Charlotte. See, right now most people producing solar are like Ramona Sherwood, only collecting enough rays to power one or two houses. But Olsen says, "We need businesses that have big roofs to be able to deploy renewable energy and make money from it. We need companies that own land or manufacturers that have parking lots and stores to generate electricity." The problem is, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover a warehouse roof with solar panels. A business needs to justify that investment. NC GreenPower can't help because it doesn't have enough money to help pay for such large projects. It's a nonprofit. It gets all of its money from donations. So, if Olsen's vision of warehouse roofs and parking lots covered in solar panels is going to come true, it will be up to North Carolina's largest utility companies: Duke Energy here in the west, and Progress Energy from Raleigh eastward and up in the Asheville area. As it turns out, the two companies have dramatically different takes on solar power. And that helps explain why Charlotte's solar landscape is so different from the Triangle. "The way we're approaching it is empowering the customers to own it and operate it and get the incentives themselves," says Scott Sutton from Progress Energy. Say you own a big warehouse and you want to put some solar panels up there. Well, Progress will pay you a pretty nice premium of 18 cents per kilowatt hour those panels crank out. If you install the biggest system Progress will allow at that price - 250kw - you could earn nearly $60,000 a year. The program's only six months old, but Sutton says so many companies are lined up, "we could probably drain our account in Wake County alone." Now, Duke Energy's approach to solar can be summed up in one word: control. It's doing fewer installations on a much bigger scale. Instead of letting you buy the panels, install them on your warehouse and sell the electricity, Duke Energy is going to lease your rooftop for twenty years and do all the buying and installing itself. Owen Smith from Duke Energy explains that you'll get a lease payment, but "the asset is Duke Energy's." "We own it. We maintain it and all of the electrical output flows directly to the grid," says Smith. And Duke does NOT pay you for the electricity those panels produce, because they're not yours - they're Duke's. So that same warehouse set-up that would be making you almost $60,000 a year with Progress Energy will only earn you about $3,000 in rent from Duke. Of course you didn't have to buy or install the solar panels, either. The advantage to Duke Energy is it can cherry pick its rooftops,"so we can be thoughtful about where it's located and manage the impacts to our system." So if you drive around it may look like Raleigh's got way more solar panels than Charlotte. But by the end of this year, both Progress and Duke actually expect to have the same amount of solar energy in their power mix. Which means Charlotte's not as far behind in the solar race as it looks.