Asheville – Buncombe County’s Sustainability Officer, Jeremiah LeRoy, updated the commissioners on progress toward their goal of making the county carbon-neutral by 2030. The county hopes to construct enough renewable energy infrastructure to supply 20 megawatts of power.
Solar-Power Plant Construction
First mentioned was the county’s construction, in partnership with Duke Energy, of a 5-megawatt solar power plant on the site of the retired Woodfin landfill. Once operational, the plant would supply the grid with enough power to run about 1,000 homes. For this, the county would receive renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset some of the carbon emissions it does not expect to eliminate by 2030, like vehicle exhaust. This project would move the county 25% of the way toward its goal.
LeRoy reported that the solar farm was now complete except for one hurdle. It passed all environmental assessments, and Duke had approved it for connection to the grid. It only needs the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to issue a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN). A certificate is required by the NCUC before a private party may “produce, generate, transmit, deliver, or furnish” electricity for public consumption.”
CPCNs are typically not that difficult to obtain. However, late last year, Public Staff, the agency officially tasked with representing the public interest in matters coming before the NCUC, recommended against awarding this CPCN. Public Staff assessed the project to be unnecessary and expensive compared to using natural gas from infrastructure Duke is already operating.
The county is attempting to rework the terms of its lease agreement with Duke before the project goes to the NCUC for final approval. The initial plan was to have Duke pay the county $700 per acre annually. In exchange, the county would pay Duke less than the going rate for RECs. The county estimated it would collect $7,000-$17,000 a year under these terms.
To reduce the “excessive” costs imposed on Duke’s ratepayers, county staff considered reworking the contract so Duke’s rent payments would equal the purchase price for the county’s RECs. The county is still waiting for the Public Staff’s assessment of whether or not this would be enough to change their recommendation.
Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman is in the solar business. To avoid conflicts of interest, Newman said his company is not participating in this initiative. Millions of dollars were invested in the solar farm, but its objective was to help the county meet its Paris accord goals; any revenues from rent, or additions to the tax base, would be incidental. Other Projects –
The county is also working to install solar panels on rooftops. The plan was to leverage economies of scale by getting municipal governments, public schools, and other agencies to cooperate with the county in offering as much viable rooftop space as possible for a single, blockbuster contract. The list ended up with 39 projects, 14 of which would be on county-owned facilities.
The county entered into a $10.2 million contract, which has escalated two percent because staff’s panel selections kept selling out. The county has also applied for rebates, which could total anywhere from zero to two million dollars since they’re awarded in a lottery. The county is still in weekly negotiations with Duke over interconnection, but construction could start as early as June.
Rooftop solar projects under contract would only bring the county 1.22 megawatts closer to its target for 2030, and additional projects under consideration could add another 0.16 megawatts. LeRoy said project descriptions are not static, and what constitutes carbon neutrality is a moving target. For example, the county would consider adding solar on some buildings only after they have new roofs. If the county sold buildings that can’t adapt to solar panels, that would lower its carbon footprint and thus its need for RECs. A facilities study is underway.
Although Newman said a large part of the business is finding solutions to challenges that appear impossible, LeRoy said there weren’t many other good options for rooftop solar. So, the county is trying to identify two other 5 MW projects. One possibility would be to construct another solar farm on city-owned land at the Mills River Water Treatment Plant. Land in adjacent counties could also be used.
Other, more difficult options would include leasing rooftops. LeRoy said it takes about 100,000 square feet of roof space to generate 1 megawatt. So, a solar array on a nice, 10,000 square-foot roof would cost about $120,000 to build and generate about 140,000 kilowatt-hours a year, which Duke would buy at a rate of three cents per kilowatt-hour. Due to existing guidelines, which Newman said are far more onerous in this country than elsewhere, the project would not be eligible for rebates and the owner of the roof would not be able to retain any of the solar generations for his building.
Another less viable option is Duke’s Green Source Advantage program. North Carolina does not allow third-party power purchase agreements, so Duke successfully lobbied for a workaround. Private producers must still put their power on the grid but Duke has an allocation of 600 megawatts for which it will allow large-scale consumers, on a first-come basis, to negotiate directly with producers for terms of sale. LeRoy said this is a “premium product” that is probably not worth the