The Durham Community Land Trustees has been hip to the sun for about a decade now.
Where it can afford to do so, the nonprofit uses solar hot-water heaters and implements passive solar design in its affordable housing units. But solar photovoltaic panels have always been too expensive.
Last year, the renewable energy organization NC WARN put up $20,000 and raised another $22,000 from solar enthusiasts to purchase and install solar panels on a DCLT property at 811 Carroll Street, in Durham's West End neighborhood. The four panels—one for each apartment in the building—went live this winter and are expected to bring $1,700 in energy-bill savings every year.
"The panels do eventually pay for themselves, but if you do the math on the Carroll Street property, it'll take almost twenty-five years," says Selina Mack, executive director of the DCLT. "We'd love to do panels on our other units, but it would have to be a similar situation where the panels were a gift. They cost over $10,000 per panel. I mean, where would that money come from?"
It's a question that dogs solar-eager citizens across the state. Though North Carolina is the fourth-highest solar producer in the nation, you have to travel to rural solar farms to see much evidence of it. For average homeowners, the barriers are high. Third-party leasing—a no-upfront-cost scenario wherein a solar provider installs a system on your property and you pay back a set rate over time—is prohibited by state law. And last year, the General Assembly let expire the very tax credit that helped propel North Carolina to become one of the leading solar producers in the United States.
Which raises the inevitable question: What can cities like Durham do to advance solar in spite of the legislature?
That was the backdrop of a resolution proposed to the Durham City Council a few weeks ago by a coalition of clean-energy groups. Dave Rogers, director of Environment North Carolina, ran down the why-solar list: 250 days of sunshine a year; 72 million metric tons of dirty carbon pollution currently released every year to produce electricity; the potential to create more jobs beyond the current 3,100 in the state. He asked the city to adopt a resolution that sets a goal of generating 15 percent of Durham's electricity from solar by 2030. The resolution would also have Durham call on the state to set a goal of seven hundred thousand solar roofs by 2030 and a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The proposed resolution was notably short on specifics of how Durham might accomplish these goals. "We're not trying to push the city to adopt ideas that may not be right for it," Rogers says. "We see this as the first step in getting the city to put together a plan of action."
Still, Rogers says cities can drive down the costs of solar in the state in a variety of ways. Greensboro has an incentive tool that discounts permit costs if developers check enough green boxes. In Raleigh, solar installation can offset certain landscaping requirements for developers.
For individual homeowners, there are creative financing solutions that could help remove barriers. PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) financing, which has been implemented in other states, allows homeowners to borrow money from their local county to pay for solar panels and repay that loan via their property tax bill. Or, Rogers suggests, the city might partner with an organization like Self-Help to provide low-interest loans for solar.
"And in terms of taking on state law, it's a limited situation, but if enough cities speak up together—not just Durham and Chapel Hill, but Greensboro, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, with bipartisan support—I think you will see some momentum," Rogers says.
"From my point of view, issues like this come down to priority," says city council member Don Moffitt. "The city has a borrowing cap, and so spending on any new program will lower the priority of another—sidewalks, parks, a new fire station, whatever. That said, I love solar, I think we need to figure out how to make it more feasible in Durham. But we need more information to guide us in our thinking here."
The council sent the resolution to city staff to investigate. A report is expected next month.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sun City"