Duke Energy unveils 450-acre Elm City solar farm

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ELM CITY — Nearly half a million solar panels made their public debut Thursday as Duke Energy Progress unveiled the third-largest solar farm in the state.

“Duke Energy has embraced solar energy in North Carolina as a means of providing even more renewable resources to our customers,” said Duke Energy North Carolina President David Fountain. “We continue to push for projects that promote new and renewable technologies while keeping rates below the national average.”

Crews started constructing the 450-acre Elm City Solar Facility on Haynes Road in 2015 and despite some weather-related delays, the project started generating clean energy in March. Officials said they anticipate an annual output of 82,000 megawatt-hours, which is roughly the amount used by 7,000 residential customers in a year.

“Once the energy is generated and put on our grid, the electric system is like a blood system with energy going where it is needed,” said Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless. “If energy is needed in Elm City, then it’ll stay there, but if not, it’ll go to customers in other parts of the state.”

Wheeless said Duke supplies energy to 90 percent of North Carolinians with an increasing emphasis on renewable energy resources. N.C. Sustainable Energy Association Communications Manager Allison Eckley said a recent report — the Economic Impact Analysis of Clean Energy Development in North Carolina — prepared by RTI International indicates the investments into renewable energy across the state more than doubled from $948 million in 2014 to $1.97 billion in 2015.

“Clean energy really is much broader than we give it credit for,” said Eckley. “People immediately think of solar, but it is a more diverse industry that includes geothermal and biofuels among others. It is much more than solar despite solar being the driver of much of the growth.”

Wheeless did not give specifics on the investment made by Duke in the Elm City project, but said it was several million dollars. Duke has invested more than $4 billion in renewable energy since 2007 and plans to invest about $3 billion more in the next five years, officials said.

“Eastern North Carolina has a lot of flat land that was historically used for soybeans and tobacco,” Wheeless said. “North Carolina is third in the nation for solar power after California and Arizona, with eastern North Carolina as the leading region in the state because of the geographical advantages.”

Since 2007, Eckley said $161 million has been invested in the state with commercial and utility-scale clean energy projects.

“It really is a common-sense, long-term way to plan for your community,” she said. “It keeps a community resilient against the volatility of energy prices and keeps rates down as well. There is a high up-front cost but a definite long-term payoff.”

Between 2007 and 2015, about $6.3 billion was invested in clean energy across the state, which was nearly 20 times more than the state renewable energy incentives, according to the RTI report. The total economic impact on the state topping $12 billion and providing thousands of jobs.

“The reception from most communities has been positive,” Wheeless said. “County and city leaders see these projects as job creators during the construction phase and boosts to tax revenue in the long run.”

For more information on the impact of clean energy on North Carolina, go to http://tinyurl.com/hhxqmd4.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821