Cleveland County solar farm opens

Duke will buy electricity from Strata Solar, which hopes to add 150-200 jobs.

By Bruce Henderson
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

Posted: Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar and Duke Energy opened a 22,000-panel solar farm in Cleveland County Thursday, joining a growing list of commercial-scale solar projects across the state.

The installation, called Kings Mountain Solar, is capable of generating 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 616 homes. Duke will buy the electricity and the renewable energy credits the site generates under a 20-year contract.

Strata formed nearly three years ago and has operations in Ontario, Canada and San Francisco.

Chief executive Markus Wilhelm attributes the expansion of utility-scale N.C. solar farms to the state’s renewable-energy standard, which requires utilities to generate or buy green power, and to a dramatic drop in solar prices.

Wilhelm estimated that the Kings Mountain solar farm cost 30 percent to 40 percent less to build than it would have a year ago. The price of solar panels alone, he said, has plummeted 40 percent to 50 percent.

He expects prices to continue to drop. Strata hopes to add 150 to 200 workers in the next year, he said.

Most of the company’s recent hires, he said, have come from the ranks of jobless young people and professionals. Strata works with the Urban League and the Raleigh Business & Technology Center, a small-business incubator, in hiring young people it can train in the field.

Federal investment tax credits and state renewable-energy tax credits help make such projects viable, Wilhelm said, but the maturing solar industry is rapidly gaining traction on its own.

“For each Solyndra, you have hundreds of companies like ours,” he said. Solyndra Corp. is the California solar-panel maker that famously went bankrupt last September after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

North Carolina had 228 solar firms in 2011 employing an estimated 1,868 people, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association reported in its annual industries census.

Charlotte-based Duke runs a program to place 10 megawatts of solar power on N.C. rooftops and buys the power from a 17-megawatt solar farm in Davidson County. It also operates 17 megawatts of commercial solar power, including farms in Shelby and Taylorsville.
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