Until a few years ago, the South wasn’t really on the map of U.S. solar markets. Installations were concentrated in California, the Southwest and a few states in the Northeast, such as New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
That has begun to change in recent years. As a concrete validation of this progress, on Thursday the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) announced that North Carolina had become the fourth U.S. state to surpass 1 GW of installed solar PV.
North Carolina leads the region and was the second-largest U.S. market overall in 2014, installing nearly 400 MW of solar in a single year. This has had wide-ranging impacts on the state, with NCSEA counting nearly US$2 billion invested in rural counties as of 2014 as well as 4,307 full-time equivalent jobs in the state’s 450 solar companies.
And while it does not hurt that North Carolina is one of the few states in the South with a renewable energy mandate, the state’s 35% renewable energy investment tax credit (REITC) has been a bigger driver for solar, spurring the installation of solar capacities many times greater than required by law.
Until now. Despite a strong legislative push, NCSEA and the solar industry were not able to extend the REITC beyond its January 2016 sunset date.
If the impacts of the extension of the REITC are anything like what is expected when the federal investment tax credit drops form 30% to 10% in 2017, then North Carolina’s solar industry is in big trouble. Both GTM Research and Bloomberg New Energy Finance have predicted a crash in U.S. solar markets if the ITC is not extended, with utility-scale hit particularly hard.
And it is utility-scale solar which makes up the majority of North Carolina’s market. While homeowners can access the REITC, third-party ownership models which have led to a boom in the U.S. residential market are prohibited in the state.
NCSEA and its allies did manage to get a safe harbor provision passed, which will allow developers to access the REITC if their projects are 80% complete by the end of the year. However, this includes a $1,000 per megawatt charge, and does nothing for the residential market.
NCSEA Communications Manager Allison Eckley says that despite these challenges, she expects resiliency from North Carolina’s solar sector.
We’ve been through a lot in the clean energy economy in the last decade, notes Eckley. We’ve faced repeated threats at the legislative and regulatory levels, and we’ve always found a way to bounce back.