”Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” — William Wordsworth, 1798

Two community solar programs are the first in North Carolina to reduce power bills significantly for households, businesses and government.

Subscribers to community solar have no equipment to install because the solar farm is connected to a power company grid, whether rural electric cooperative or Duke. According to the solar clearinghouse Energy Sage, community solar subscribers see power bills drop by 5% to 10%.

Begun in November 2019, the City of Fayetteville program is administered by the city’s public works department. Anyone can subscribe, including renters as well as homeowners, businesses, nonprofits, schools and local government. Monthly savings always exceed the nominal monthly fee of $1.53. As more entities sign on, subscriber savings increase. See the Fayetteville Public Works Community Solar page at faypwc.com/community-solar/.

Thanks to two bulk-purchasing campaigns in Buncombe County, community solar is lowering power bills for schools and colleges, local governments and many businesses and households. The first campaign (2019-2020) funded a program for the city, county, public schools and AB Tech. Savings are impressive. Previously, Asheville schools paid over $832,000 annually on electricity. Adding solar reduced that bill by over $142,000.

This year, the second campaign, Solarize Asheville-Buncombe, is offering community solar for renters, homeowners and businesses. The program was created by a coalition including MountainTrue, Green Opportunities, the City of Asheville, the Blue Horizons Project, Sierra Club, and others. Learn more at buncombecounty.org/countycenter/news-detail.aspx?id=19238&agency=0.

A low-impact income boost for farmers leasing land

Many farmers have land appropriate for large “low-impact” solar installations, which preserve topsoil and native cover crops.

Farmers can still grow certain crops, raise bees or graze small animals around the panels. Sheep, most cattle breeds and horses of non-draft breeds work well. No goats though, because they climb on the equipment.

Suitable crops are those grown and harvested by hand or with small machinery: bedding plants, nursery plants, vegetables and small fruit trees or shrubs. Some crops even have better yields under or near solar arrays. See “Beneath Solar Panels, the Seeds of Opportunity Sprout” at nrel.gov/news/features/2019/beneath-solar-panels-the-seeds-of-opportunity-sprout.html.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Rural Energy Program for America (REAP) provides grants and loans to landowners. Learn more at: www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/rural-energy-america-program-renewable-energy-systems-energy-efficiency/nc?pid=. Farmers’ concerns are explained in the USDA publication “Considerations for Transferring Agricultural Land to Solar Panel Energy Production” at craven.ces.ncsu.edu/considerations-for-transferring-agricultural-land-to-solar-panel-energy-production/.

How to get community solar

Community solar programs can be started and run by a rural electric cooperative, local government or private-public coalition.

An entity contracts with a solar business to install and maintain equipment on a site owned by government or leased from a private landowner. Interested groups should contact the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at NC State University. Learn more at nccleantech.ncsu.edu/our-work/energy-sustainability-services/.

For community solar funding options, consult the WNC energyCAP (Energy Cost-share Assistance Program), a 501©(3) nonprofit partnership of four WNC Resource Conservation and Development Councils, at energyCAP.org.

Eliza Stokes, MountainTrue representative to Solarize Buncombe, recommends creating a broad coalition. She urges citizens, “Don’t wait for government to do it.”

Local officials might lack time or resources. To interest them, Stokes explained, “a coalition should first understand the dynamics of businesses and elected officials’ concerns. What is their number one priority — cost savings, jobs creation or climate mitigation? Research their challenges and those of their constituencies. Find out who pays the power bills for local schools. Talk with officials about the benefits of community solar. Local governments will appreciate your doing the work for which they might not have time or funds. Bulk purchasing and getting several entities to commit also helps cut government’s costs.”

Note: A solar farm in Bethel is not community solar; a private company sells power directly to Duke.

WNC Climate Action Coalition member and column editor Mary Jane Curry can be reached at MJCinWNC@gmail.com. Learn more at WNCClimateAction.com.

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