Duke Energy Plans Major Solar Expansion In North Carolina

Sep 15, 2014

The nation’s largest power company will also be one of the largest solar providers. Duke Energy wrapped up six months of shopping for solar projects today, and announced it will increase its North Carolina capacity by more than a third. Despite the increase, solar remains a tiny fraction of overall generation.

A Strata Solar project in Cleveland County. The company will sell a 65-megawatt project planned near Jacksonville, N.C. to Duke Energy.
Credit Strata Solar

Duke’s Carolina utilities will add about 280 megawatts of solar energy to the grid by the end of next year—when the sun’s brightest, that will be similar to what the Buck coal plant in Rowan County produced. In particular, the company sought out large projects solar developers were already planning to build.

“We feel very comfortable that they’re very attractively priced,” said Duke senior vice president Rob Caldwell, who oversaw the process. “One of our goals was to take advantage of the economies of scale for the larger projects.”

Duke says the solar farm Strata Solar will build near Jacksonville is the largest east of the Mississippi, at 65 megawatts. The additional capacity would have put Duke second in the nation in last year’s rankings for utility-owned solar, behind only northern California’s PG&E.

Nearly all of that uptick has been driven by private developers, whose power Duke is required by law to buy. But Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the North Carolina Solar Energy Association thinks one aspect of the announcement is particularly notable: Duke’s Carolina utilities, which currently own almost no solar, will buy about half of the projects announced today out right.

“Really maybe the only significance out of this announcement is the portion, the 128 megawatts, that Duke Energy will own,” Urlaub says. “That is the fundamental shift that signals to the market that costs are starting to approach that level.”

Urlaub says that means costs are falling to a point where utilities are beginning to look at solar as a viable option for their portfolios.

Still, even with this generation, Duke projects solar will only make up 4 percent of its generation 15 years from now.