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Huge North Carolina Solar Project Could “Move the Needle” for Solar’s Possibilities

Coming on the heels of Apple’s announced 17.5-MW solar project in Maiden, North Carolina, spokespeople for an innovative renewable energy project involving two universities, a hospital and the largest non-utility solar PPA in the U.S. have said that it will also begin construction in North Carolina this summer.

The 52-MW project, named Capital Partners Solar, is innovative in a number of ways. First, the project is being constructed and will be owned and operated by a utility, Duke Energy, and the PPA has been signed by three large energy end-users, George Washington University (GWU), which will be taking 70 percent of the power output; American University (AU), which will be taking 25 percent of the power output; and George Washington University Hospital (GWUH), which will be taking the remaining 5 percent of the power put out by the 243,000 Jinko solar panels.

The two universities will be meeting more than half of their power needs through solar and the hospital will be meeting as much as 32 percent of its power needs. Being constructed in three parts, at three different locations, Capital Partners Solar will create 150-200 construction jobs during the first phase of construction, which starts now. During the second and third phase of construction set to take place in 2015, 250-300 jobs will be created.

All three phases are being built on agricultural land in North Carolina. "We believe our support of solar energy is creating excitement about making investments in our community," said Jon Crouse, trustee for one of the parcels of land in phase one of the project in a statement. "The opportunities the project presents — hundreds of construction jobs, the sale of materials and consumables and an increase in the tax base — are huge for our county. For the landowners and farmers, it enables us to diversify from a fully agricultural portfolio, build economic sustainability and become part of a larger effort to be good stewards of the environment." 

Gary Farha is president and CEO of Customer First Renewables (CFR), the organization that designed and structured the end-to-end solution, including helping to select and negotiate the deal between the partners and Duke Energy Renewables and he is thrilled to have helped orchestrate the project. As far as he knows this project is one of a kind. “We believe that less than one percent of renewables procured by large U.S. electricity end-users come from getting direct access to power generated from a large-scale solution like this that is off-site,” he said. Farha said that based on his company’s analysis about 90 percent of renewable energy is delivered to end-users through RECs (renewable energy certificates).  Of the remaining 10 percent, he said that 3 percent is onsite renewables like rooftop solar and the remaining 6 percent is delivered from “swap-like deals,” like what Google did with its Oklahoma Wind Farm.

CFR works to give its customers direct access to renewables, Farha explained, and this project is a good example. “We are moving well beyond a REC-focused strategy to one where they [large energy end-users] are not only causing renewables to be built in most cases but also actually managing and integrating those renewables into their power supply.”

The second innovative aspect of this deal was the aggregation of the entities. CFR showed the group an economic analysis that explained to them the benefits of scale, in other words, it was better for them to construct a larger project and share the output than it would have been for them to construct and own individual projects. And the price was good, so good that it is the third innovative aspect of this deal. While Farha declined to disclose the final per kWh price that they will be paying for the solar power, he said: “We can tell you that from the very start that the delivered LCOE [levelized cost of energy] is below what they are currently paying for brown power.”

Keep in mind that LCOE is a measure of the final cost of the power over a 20-year timeframe and in order to compare it to brown power a broad range of assumptions are generally taken into consideration, including the fact that brown power costs will escalate as the price of fuel increases whereas the price of sunlight and wind will not. Farha said that CFR calculates savings in the neighborhood of 15-20 percent for its customers, savings that are “very significant over what they would consider base-case assumptions.”

It’s also important to point out that the GWU, AU and GWUH were interested in renewable power, not specifically solar and so the original RFP included wind. After all the numbers were crunched, solar beat wind in terms of final delivered cost to the customers.

When fully operational at the end of 2015, Capital Partners Solar Project is projected to generate 123 million kWh of emissions-free electricity per year.

"American University is firmly on its way to achieving carbon neutrality by 2020," said AU President Neil Kerwin. "We are home to the largest combined solar array in the District, are resolved to growing green power through our purchase of renewable energy certificates and are now a partner to the largest non-utility solar energy purchase in the United States."

"Duke Energy looks forward to working with these leading D.C. institutions on an innovative solar project that demonstrates their leadership in sustainability and, at the same time, provides them with low-cost energy at a stable price for years to come," said Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables in a statement.

Solar power generated at the panel sites in North Carolina will move through a North Carolina electrical grid into the D.C. regional grid, increasing the amount of solar energy in the region.

"Great organizations define the future. They embrace new ways of thinking and become part of something bigger than themselves. We have a responsibility outside our four walls to the world beyond," said Barry Wolfman, CEO and managing director of GWUH, in a statement.

Wolfman continued: "Joining this partnership to embrace alternative power reflects our daily work as health advocates—caring, healing, teaching and birthing new generations. Our work and this project pave the way for a brighter future in the nation's capital and the world as a whole. It's simply the right thing to do." 

Lead image: Solar with blue sky via Shutterstock

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