Tag Archives: solar

Development of solar fuel: Q&A with Dr. Jillian Dempsey

Assistant Professor Jillian Dempsey of UNC-Chapel Hill can make fuel with two ingredients: water and sunlight.

Dempsey’s research team is studying solar fuel in order to store the energy given off by the sun in an efficient manner. Below, she discusses what her team hopes to accomplish in the coming years through their research.

(This interview has been edited for length.)


Lydia Odom: What sparked your interest in solar fuels?

 Dr. Jillian Dempsey: When I was an undergraduate student I started doing research in a lab and that was one of the labs that was at the forefront of developing this technology. So I did research in this area when I was in college and I got really interested in it. When I went to graduate school I joined another lab where I could continue this research area. Then after that kept moving further and further into the field. It was just a really exciting area to be in as we think about the threats to our energy security and our global health. It’s a little scary to think about what happens if we don’t develop this technology, so that was a big motivating factor to go in this direction.


Odom: Can you explain, in layman’s terms, what you’re researching and what the goal behind your research is?

Dempsey: My research focuses on ways to capture solar energy and covert it into a stored form, specifically fuels. A lot of solar energy technologies that are currently available are things like solar photovoltaic, like solar panels. Those are great technologies, but obviously they could be a lot better because they’re expensive and their efficiency is not that great. But kind of a bigger challenge toward their widespread implementation is the storage. Solar panels generate electricity, but when the sun is not shining you’re not generating electricity, so how do you address that challenge?

My area of research is solar fuels, or artificial photosynthesis. What it is is using the energy of the sun to synthesize high energy density fuels. A great reason why it’s called artificial photosynthesis is because green plants are taking sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and they’re using the energy from the sun to turn the carbon dioxide and the water into carbohydrates, or sugars, and oxygen. And when you generate these carbohydrates, that’s stored energy. So what we’re trying to do is something along those lines. We want to do a much simpler reaction, and instead of making sugars, which are complex molecules and require a PhD in organic chemistry to make, we want to do something simple like spitting water into hydrogen and oxygen … The splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen is a endergonic reaction, so you have to put energy in to do that reaction and then the products are essentially storing the energy of the sun. And if you were to take that hydrogen and combust it, you would release all the energy … So we’re just trying to close that loop there. If the energy in to make hydrogen comes from the sun, then when we combust hydrogen we get energy back out.


Odom: In what form is the fuel you’re making? Is it a gas?

Dempsey: If you use it to make hydrogen, you are making a gas. Now that’s a challenge, because we like liquid fuels. So there are ways to couple this reaction with carbon dioxide… If you take carbon dioxide along for the ride there you could make products like methane or methanol. … But knowing that hydrogen is probably going to be an important fuel, there are a lot of people who have developed new materials for hydrogen storage…in order to make hydrogen a viable fuel.


Odom: Have you found anything in your research so far that may lead to this being a viable fuel?

 Dempsey: A lot of what my lab does is we study the very fundamental processes that are associated with building a device. So we’re not engineers, we have not built a device. But we think about how to make this process energy efficient. So imagine you are a catalyst and you take in sunlight. Now, sunlight has a certain energy, so every photon that hits the earth has a certain energy. We want to make sure we’re not wasting the energy that comes in in those photons. So what we’re trying to do is figure out ways that the catalysts won’t waste energy. We want to make sure that when they take the energy from that photon, they turn all the energy from that photon into fuel energy. We want to maximize that energy conversion process. We’re trying to work on the little details that make a big difference in the efficiency.


Odom: What are the main obstacles in scaling this up to be viable in the future?

Dempsey: A lot of the challenges with all solar technologies, this goes for the silicon solar panels we see now as well as the solar fuels, are the costs behind the materials that are needed to make these devices. One of the reasons we don’t see more solar panels is because of their high cost. And that comes from the materials needed and the processing for them. … A lot of what we have to do is figure out how to get cheaper materials, like nickel and iron, to behave like the expensive materials. Because not only are those materials expensive, part of the reason they’re expensive is because they are not very abundant on earth. They’re very rare materials. And they’re rare so their price goes up. But even if we had money, the fact that they’re rare means that we don’t even have enough of those materials on earth to fill the need.


Odom: What do you see as the main strength of this new technology, and why it might be able to overcome these obstacles?

Dempsey: There are a lot of advantages. It clearly addresses the storage issue. And also, because we’re making fuels, it addresses energy needs in the transportation sector. Another benefit of this technology is the fact that you don’t need to be on the electrical grid to utilize it. … In developing countries that don’t really have that electrical infrastructure but are rapidly becoming more and more developed and using more and more energy, this is a great opportunity for them. … And the last benefit I’ll note, is that you can start with saltwater or sewage waste water and make hydrogen. And then, when I release hydrogen though combustion or use hydrogen in a fuel cell, either way the product is clean water. So kind of the bonus is water purification.


Odom: Is there a time frame you see all of this happening in?

Dempsey: I would say maybe 15 to 20 years before this is something we’re seeing in the market. …People are being more optimistic than that and I am not as optimistic as other people, just because I’ve watched the process in 10 years very closely. So I know how far we can get in another 10 years, and that’s not enough.

Kinston: NC’s Innovative Rural Development Hotspot

Early Saturday morning of the first week in April, long before the sun peeked over the horizon, my alarm jarred me awake. Why on Earth would I get up so early on my one day off? To hop on a bus to Kinston, North Carolina, that was leaving town hours before I usually even manage to crawl out of bed.

Located on the Neuse River, 30 miles south of Greenville, North Carolina, Kinston is a hotbed of innovative and sustainable development. I traveled there with a group of UNC students to tour the town and document its use of renewable energy.

When the textile and tobacco industries left North Carolina in the 1990s, so did a major share of Kinston’s economy. On top of that, severe back-to-back flooding in 1996 and 1999 intensified the downturn.

Today, Kinston is back on its feet, touting a thriving arts district and tourism industry. The town even hosts a reality TV show focused on the local restaurant “Chef and the Farmer.”

View of a solar farm along the highway into Kinston
View of a solar farm along the highway into Kinston.

As it rebuilds, Kinston is paying special attention to clean energy. There are two solar farms along the highway into Kinston that provide the town with renewable energy.

Solar farms provide clean, renewable energy, and they can also be an economic boon for farmers. Installations can provide additional forms of income, and the diversification can help stabilize farmers’ often-volatile income streams.

Solar energy is a theme in Kinston. Panel sightings don’t stop with the solar farms along the outskirts. Installations can be found right in the middle of town as well.

Mother Earth Brewing is one of Kinston's main attractions.
Mother Earth Brewing is one of Kinston’s main attractions.

The Mother Earth Brewing Company, as its name suggests, pays special attention to their relationship with our planet. The building sports a six-kilowatt solar array that provides all of the electricity for its tap room and beer garden.

Mother Earth is the first and only LEED Gold certified brewery in the United States. A gold certification is the second highest ranking that a building can achieve for its sustainability.

Solar panels above Mother Earth Brewing's Beer Garden and Tap Room.
Solar panels above Mother Earth Brewing’s Beer Garden and Tap Room.

Mother Earth’s sustainable practices don’t stop there. It recycles its brewing grains by giving them to farmers to use as animal feed, and it donates grain bags to the Forest Service for use in replanting trees.

Dondi Smith, manager of Leon Thomas Treasures in downtown Kinston, said that the brewery played a major role in starting the recent wave of revitalization.

Smith said that the development trends today have directly progressed from the opening of Mother Earth and the Chef and the Farmer in the early 2000’s.

Handmade soaps from a local artist sold in Smith's shop.
Handmade soaps from a local artist sold in Smith’s shop.

Steven Hill, who owns Mother Earth, has also played an important role in fostering Kinston’s arts district.

Smith said that Hill bought about 50 homes in Kinston’s historical district. He remodeled the homes and rents them out at affordable prices to young artists.

According to Smith, the influx of artists to this community that Hill created has been great for Kinston’s economy. The artists start businesses selling their work that they run out of their homes.

The artists also sell their wares to local businesses. Smith’s store sells local handmade soaps, for example.

“So in this span of about seven years, we have just seen this explosion of growth,” she said.

A series of murals at Kinston's Music Park, part of NC's African American Music Trails.
A series of murals at Kinston’s Music Park, part of NC’s African American Music Trails.

Kinston’s history is rich in the arts. One of the many tourist attractions that bring people to the town is the Kinston Music Park, part of the African American Music Trails of North Carolina. The park pays homage to musicians like Louis Armstrong who played concerts there as well as people like the members of James Brown’s band who called Kinston home.

Small solar panels that power the lighting at Kinston's Music Park.
Small solar panels that power the lighting at Kinston’s Music Park.

Lighting for the Music Park is powered by a series of small solar panels. Local energy retailer Cherry Energy provided the panels for the park.

Cherry Energy sells everything from gasoline to solar panels. They sold the rooftop panels to Mother Earth Brewing, and they donated panels to the local farmers market.

Solar panel-topped benches at the farmers market in Kinston.
Solar panel-topped benches at the farmers market in Kinston.

Kinston’s farmers market has been around since 1979, but has seen an increase in activity in recent years.

Local food movements not only help farmers sell their wares, but they also cut down on pollution. Farmers reduce their emissions by not having to ship their produce hundreds of miles to big-name grocery retailers.

A local farmer's truck at the Kinston farmers market.
A local farmer’s truck at the Kinston farmers market.

Kinston’s local food movement started with the farmers market in 1979. It has experienced a lot of activity since the Chef and the Farmer opened in 2006.

A box of fresh collards at the Kinston farmers market.
A box of fresh collards at the Kinston farmers market.

The Chef and the Farmer, owned by Vivian Howard and her husband Benjamin Knight, has become Kinston’s prize jewel. The restaurant is a tourist hotspot, and even hosts the PBS reality show “A Chef’s Life.”

A menu from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant.
A menu from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant.

The Chef and the Farmer serves high-quality food completely created from local ingredients. The restaurant supports local growers in this way, and it highlights the quantity and diversity of foods that can be found so close to home.

Kinston’s rural revitalization efforts draw from many different sources. Between the arts movement, local food efforts, and renewable energy installations, Kinston is transforming into a thriving depiction of the future of rural North Carolina.

Virtual Clean Tech Job Fair

Did you miss this year’s Clean Tech Summit?

No worries, scroll through this gallery to learn about some of the top employers  in the solar industry.

Grid Alternatives : based in Oakland, California. Founder: Erica Mackie Grid Alternatives is a company that seeks to provide access to solar energy to underprivileged and struggling communities. They offer several training programs, including Solar Spring Break, to provide students with practical skills for the solar workforce. Photo Credit: Robert Scoble
Grid Alternatives : based in Oakland, California. Founder: Erica Mackie
Grid Alternatives is a company that seeks to provide access to solar energy to underprivileged and struggling communities. They offer several training programs, including Solar Spring Break, to provide students with practical skills for the solar workforce.
Photo Credit: Robert Scoble
United Solar Initiative : based in Chapel Hill, NC. Founders: Alex Wilhelm, Steven Thomsen, and Ed Witkin.
United Solar Initiative is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to finding solutions to energy and water crisis in underdeveloped communities. They work both domestically and abroad to provide solar-powered water pumps and other needed projects.
Photo Credit: US Dept. of Agriculture
Sungevity : based in Oakland, CA.
Sungevity is a for-profit solar company that often partners with nonprofits to provide affordable solar power to low-income individuals. They also work to equip homeowners and businesses with solar panels.
Photo Credit: 350.0rg
Cypress Creek Renewables : based in Gilbert, AZ
Though based in Arizona, Cypress Creek Renewables also has a presence in Carrboro. They focus on providing local solar energy and services to the surrounding community.
Photo Credit: University of Saskatchewan
http://www.stratasolar.com/ http://www.stratasolar.com/
Strata Solar : based in Chapel Hill. Founders: Markus and Cathy Wilhelm
Strata Solar prides themselves in making local employment a priority, boasting 1200 new jobs created in 2013. They offer a variety of career options and are a top employer of UNC students.
Photo Credit: Michael Mazengarb

3 Solar Financing Options to Consider

Paying for your own energy sucks.

So why not just produce your own energy? Maybe you’re just considering ways to make your home or your community more energy efficient, and save some money. Either way, there are many different types of solar technology that create or save energy.

Small solar electric systems are becoming increasingly popular as a way to produce electricity for homes and businesses. Photovoltaic systems use sunlight to create energy. Excess energy can usually be sold back into the grid.


Photo by: Mike Carter

Another ways to utilize solar power is a solar water heating system. Active systems have pumps that circulate water through plates exposed to sunlight on roofs and back into the home. Passive solar water heating systems are not as efficient, but can be more reliable and longer lasting. They work so that the water flows when warm water rises and colder water sinks into the tanks.

The cost of solar technology is also going down, due to investment and research by the government.

The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative is a national effort to reduce the costs of solar to $0.06 per kilowatt hour,” said a DOE spokesperson. “Yet,  it does not make funding available for individual solar projects, instead it focuses on innovations that will help make solar cost-competitive, whether that be making advances in technology or reducing market barriers, compared to other forms of energy.”

A main concern about utilizing these technologies is the expense of installing them. The government offers programs to help make the costs of producing energy or becoming more energy efficient feasible. State incentives vary, but can be found through the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. Here are three federal incentives for implementing solar technologies in your home or community.

1: FHA PowerSaver Loan Program

This is a program that incentivizes energy-saving renovations to the home by offering borrowers low-cost loans. These loans include up to $25,000 to install solar panels, along with other energy-efficient improvements.

To participate, you must have a minimum credit score of 660, and a one-unit, owner-occupied principal residence. To apply, contact an FHA approved lender.


Photo by: TEIA

2: Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit

The taxpayer may claim a 30% tax credit on expenditures of solar electric or solar water-heating property. These expenditures include labor costs, assembly and system installation and piping or wiring a system to the home.

This tax credit is decreasing gradually. It is a 30% tax credit for systems in place before 2020, 26% for systems placed between 2020 and 2021, and 22% for systems placed in 2021. The home served by the system does not have to be the taxpayer’s principal residence.

“I think that most importantly, there is certainty in it now,” said Doug Stingle, the development director for The Midwest Renewable Energy Association. ”The market knows what the rate is going to be in the next couple of years; some of that pressure has been relieved.”

3: USDA High Energy Cost Grant Program

This is a grant aimed for rural, local communities with expensive energy costs. Those who can apply include state and local governments, non-profits and for-profit businesses. Eligible areas must have an average household energy cost exceeding 275 percent of the national average, which is $0.33 per kilowatt hour.

The grants range from $50,000 to $3 million for activities including renewable energy facilities and other electricity generation facilities.


Photo by: gambier20

Solar Installation Timeline

In a world of quick expiration dates and unreliable subsidies, the time it takes to install a solar system on your house matters. A lot of it depends on how quickly your local government gives permits, and the companies you decide to use. Here is a rough estimate of what to expect:


Pre-Work: Two months or less

This really depends on the customer. If applying for federal loans or grants, this amount of time varies. If you are on top of it, it could take much less time. You also need to pick a company and get estimates for the cost. When you finally sign the paperwork, the project becomes official.


Gathering Site Specific Data: Weeks One and Two

Various experts from the solar installation company come out to assess the job that must be done. Construction workers and engineers will survey the house and land surrounding it. Electricians may come in to update wiring and make sure the energy produced from the PV cells can be transferred into your house and onto the grid.

“So usually what you do is sign a customer for a contract for a certain system size,” said Dan Lezama, the owner of Sun Dollar Energy LLC, a solar installation company based in Raleigh, NC. This ‘system size’ means the actual number of panels you want on and around your house.


Photo by: Takver

Designing the Project: Weeks Three and Four

The contractors and company design a feasible plan of what the PV cells will look like, and how to go about installing them. You must then look them over and approve of the plans. If you want to make changes, the designing process could go on much longer.

“We are a full service turnkey provider,” said Bethany Theede, the office manager of Yes Solar Solutions, a solar panel installing company. “ We design the system based on the consumer’s energy usage and we design the panels to be placed on the roof to get the most usage. South facing roofs are best.”

Permit Submission and Approval: Week Five

This depends on your local government, and how prepared you are to apply for a permit. Some governments take only a day, whereas others can take weeks, especially if the customer doesn’t apply properly.


Installation: Week Six

After you have the go ahead to install, you must then schedule the installation. It usually takes one or two days to properly assemble the PV cells on the building.


Photo by: Chris Kantos

Inspection and Approval: Weeks Seven and Eight

The city will usually come out and make sure the PV cells are working properly. Your electric utility may also inspect and put in a new meter for you.

“The most time consuming thing is getting approval from the utility company and getting a building permit,” said Lezama. “It entirely depends on what town you’re in; some places you can get them in a day, sometimes in a week. The utility approval is usually a 2 week process.”

Carolina Seniors Working in Solar Energy


Marisa Scavo who works at Cypress Creek Renewables
Marisa Scavo who works at Cypress Creek Renewables
James Ellsmoor who works at Solar Head of State
James Ellsmoor who works at Solar Head of State
Climate change and the critical need to reduce our carbon footprint are driving a new career field: solar energy.
The field is a burgeoning career path for entrepreneurs and employees. Scientists, engineers, manufacturers, project managers, builders, skilled trade workers such as electricians and plumbers, construction and installation labor, inventors, materials experts, lawyers, environmental advocates, economists and saccy politicians all have a niche in the solar industry. It is a field open to graduates from many differnet disciplines using disparate sets of skills.
As Carolina senior James Ellsmoor observed, “A really diverse range of people can go into solar, from humanities to hard sciences.”Marisa Scavo agrees: “There is so much opportunity in the renewable energy field. The solar industry is the most flexible, developed, and applicable out of all renewables.”
Ellsmoor and Marisa Scavo are two Carolina undergraduates holding down real jobs in the solar industry. Ellsmoor has already been an active participant in solar energy work even before actually obtaining his undergraduate degree with a double major in geography and economics. Asked about what has been the upside of being employed in the industry he was quick to respond, “I like doing something that can make a difference.” Besides the “do- gooder” stimulus Ellsmoor added “I believe solar is going to be a key market with a strong future.” Career satisfaction coupled with job security and compensation are significant motivating factors for most of us.


Scavo is currently a development Intern for Cypress Creek Renewables, a national provider of local solar that partners with local communities to provide access to clean affordable energy.  Cypress’s webpage states that their “local solar farms produce energy at or below market costs, making solar power an option for everyone.”

Scavo is excited to be a part of that mission. She will transition to a general zoning manager for Cypress upon her graduation in May. The job will entail maintaining relations between the townships and Cypress to ensure that developing their solar farm is a successful venture. Her responsibilities will involve a lot of community outreach, site plan review, and communication with planning boards and building inspectors. Her passionate interest in clean technology and honed skills in determining the economic costs and impacts of a project will be put to good use in her job with Cypress.

“Director of project development” is Ellsmoor’s official title at the solar non-profit he is employed with.  Solar Head of State was formed by a group of solar energy social entrepreneurs with the goal of installing free solar systems in the executive residence of every country around the globe. Free solar systems are offered to heads of state that did not obtain power through military force, are not listed human rights violators with the worldwide watchdog organization freedomhouse.org, and whose official executive residence is publicly owned by the people of their country. The free installations are meant to aid governments in setting a highly visible example of solar energy utilization. Creating global awareness of environmental issues and solutions is the hoped for outcome.

A crucial aspect of Ellsmoor’s position has been his work with governments worldwide to implement Solar Head of State projects. The most recent project he worked on was the planning stages to install a 10kW grid-connected solar photovoltaic system on the government house in the SIDS (Small Island Developing State) of St. Lucia in May. The Governor General’s residence in the Caribbean island nation is a historic Victorian building located in the capital city Castries. The building also contains Le Pavillon Royal Museum which houses early 17th century artifacts and documents that chronicle St. Lucia state history. The solar energy project was touted at the Paris Climate Change Conference in December. A call was issued for other world leaders at the COP21 to show personal leadership by putting solar systems on their official residences as a way to showcase and promote the use of clean renewable solar energy technology.

Ellsmoor’s role in the St. Lucia project utilized his range of knowledge and skills and gave him more experience in working with government policy and development, communication with officials, and negotiating the sometimes slippery slope of cultural differences. Not all St. Lucia natives were completely sold on the value of the solar project on the Executive residence. One commentator on the Jamaica Observer’s online article about the St. Lucia project was underwhelmed to say the least.  Holy Perv colorfully stated his opinion, “Stupid idea fi solarise anything fi di G.G. Him cornas fi dark.. Get rid of the G.G and his colonialist tradition. . Turn the place into an orphanage. It will better serve the country. The G.Gs residence is a waste of resources. Go siddung wid dem tings deh…”

Hopefully, a publicized reduction in public expenditure on energy and the generation of new jobs joined with a newly perceived environmental benefit will eventually help to alter Perv’s negative reaction.

Ellsmoor and Scavo are both inspiring examples of Carolina students working in the solar energy field. Both have encouraging advice for others to join them in working for a cleaner future for our global environment.  Ellsmoor offered this advice for aspiring solar energy field entrepreneurs and employees, “Be creative, there are so many opportunities, but a lot of people to compete with. By thinking outside the box and looking to the global relevance of solar there are plenty of ways to find your place in the industry.” The opportunity to have both a personally fulfilling and a successful lucrative solar energy field career is out there.  Scavo said, “What I continually try to convey to people looking to get hired in the energy sector is to gain tangible skills. Yes – it’s really great to take classes on the energy industry and that will definitely help in some respect…but, learning how to problem solve, work with data, manage projects, analytically make decisions is way more practical. There are so many types of solar to get into – residential, commercial, community, utility scale.”  Ellsmoor articulated the realm of possibilities this way adding this, “there are so many different avenues, most people think solar is just for domestic installations, but opportunities are springing up from the arctic to the Sahara.” The St. Lucia executive Governor’s Caribbean island residence and closer to home communities  are only two examples of where solar can go. Be part of the solar wave of the future. The challenge is there. Go and get it!

Opinion: The faces of solar

Is solar really just for the rich?

As the popularity of rooftop solar circulates through states like California, it can be hard to resist the idea that renewable energy is just for the most educated and wealthy American people. In North Carolina, it is a rarity at all to see rooftop solar, let alone on the rooftops of those who are financially struggling.

Over my spring break in Los Angeles, CA, I have confronted the fact that solar can seriously benefit lower-income families, not just the rich. 

What if there was a way that we could lower the bills of low-income families significantly through volunteerism?

This is what 301(c)3 non-profit GRID Alternatives, a subsidiary of Solarcorp under Americorp, is doing by providing solar panels for low income families across the US at no cost to the homeowner.

How do I know? I installed the panels myself with the help of GRID’s amazing team and 11 other UNC students.

California operates under a feed-in tariff, where an individual can earn payment for the energy produced by their solar panels at a higher rate for a set period of time. In 2008, GRID was chosen as  the statewide program manager for its $162 million Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) incentive program.

The SASH program is the first in the country to provide significant rebates for solar energy for low income housing, directing 10 percent of California Solar Initiative funds to be set aside for programs assisting low-income households in accessing solar technology.

What this means is in California, solar has to be inclusive, and the government funds projects that work towards this goal. That’s where GRID comes in.

There are some requirements to get no-cost solar: you must live in a state determined low-income neighborhood, be within a certain income bracket, own and live in the home, and have a nice, sturdy roof. Once all those boxes are checked, you are then on the list for getting solar panels that can reduce your monthly electricity bill by over 50 percent. In many cases, an electricity bill reduction can mean a world of difference.

The people who benefit from GRID go beyond just the people that receive solar. The solar industry is a booming one in California that creates many jobs that require experience and training. I think all of us have gotten rejected from a job for not having enough experience. But how are you supposed to get experience without a job?

GRID is also working to close this chicken-and-egg situation through volunteerism. GRID installs all of its solar panels using volunteers, including veterans, who can then use this experience to apply for jobs in the for-profit solar industry.

In North Carolina, the 35 percent tax credit for investment in renewables died at the end of 2015. This tax credit led to a boom in solar investments in the state, and continued investments in solar could have led to job opportunities across the rural-urban divide. Without this tax credit, renewables in North Carolina faces serious trouble as the incentive to invest no longer exists.

Not only have renewables struggled in North Carolina, but individuals as well. Electricity bills in North Carolina are 9.35 percent higher than the national average and low-income families often have to choose between electricity and food in the winter months because of high oil prices. And while solar may not be the perfect option year-round, the savings that these families can earn could literally save their lives.

So who are the faces of solar? As for me, they are Maria Gonzales, the woman who will save $300 off her energy bill every month due to the solar GRID installed on her roof over UNC’s spring break. They are the faces of the men and women I worked side by side with who started as volunteers and are now paid members of GRID’s training force.

Will we stand behind the myth of solar only being for the wealthy, or will we take leaps towards energy equality? Will we take advantage of the opportunities that solar presents, not only for people who have solar themselves but the jobs it creates?

North Carolina: it’s your move.

FAQs: Renewable Energy Enabling Rural Development

Farmers now have the chance to grow more than just crops.

The growth of the renewable energy industry has led to investment by many in the agriculture industry. But not everyone is convinced such technologies offer substantial advantages.

Below are some of the most common questions surrounding renewable energy and its potential to transform rural communities.

Q: As a person living in a rural community, what is the argument for investing in renewable energy?

A: The ongoing threat of climate change, specifically droughts and floods, increasingly threatens farmer’s harvests. This is where diversification comes in to play.

Diversification is the practice of allocating money for different uses. Farmers can do this by planting multiple crops, instead of relying on the success of a single crop.

It is becoming more important that farmers diversify their income due to the potential for harsh weather in the future. And now farmers have the opportunity to further diversify their incomes by investing in renewables.

Paul Sherman, the associate state legislative director with the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, has worked alongside farmers for years. He understands that diversification is a necessity for farmers.

“Diversification spreads out risk throughout the year,” Sherman said.

Instead of being hit hard all at once, diversifying income limits the risk experienced at any one point in time.

One aspect of investing in renewables is farmers are guaranteed a lease payment each year for their land.

Sherman said this provides farmers with money they can count on.

He also said he views the investment in renewable energy as simply an additional utilization of their land.


Q: Isn’t renewable energy expensive?

A: A large criticism of switching to renewable energy is that it’s too expensive. Historically, renewable energy has cost more than its nonrenewable counterparts.

But with the recent rise of solar and wind installations, the costs of these technologies have dropped significantly.

The growth of the solar industry has made the market more competitive, leading to a decline in costs.

Technological innovation has also driven down prices. The International Energy Agency’s 2015 report, Projected Costs of Generating Electricity, detailed a large drop particularly for solar and wind.

The report compares costs of nonrenewable and renewable energy sources. The cost of renewables is difficult to pinpoint due to variation between, and even within, countries. However, findings show onshore wind as the cheapest renewable technology, and solar PV as having a significant decrease in cost.

This IEA report makes it clear that renewable energy sources are no longer considered outliers on the basis of cost.


Q: Are there laws preventing me from putting solar panels/wind turbines on my property?

A: Laws vary by state—and even by county—regarding renewable energy.

It’s important to look up your region and find existing policies that could prevent you from installing renewables.

California, for example, has laws in place that protect homeowner access to the sun for solar panels. The Solar Rights Act states that consumers have the right to access sunlight. It also places restrictions on the ability of homeowner associations and local government to prevent people from installing solar.

However, not all states have such lenient policies. Many require that you go through a homeowner association before installing panels, which can lead to a dead end.


Q: I live in the city. Why should I care about this?

A: Investing in renewable energy by farmers is beneficial to everyone, rural and urban alike.

Despite the distance between residents of urban areas and rural areas, the two are closely connected.

The crops produced in rural communities are the main source of food for urban dwellers. Without the labor of farmers, millions of people would come home to empty tables and refrigerators.

Keeping this in mind, if rural communities struggle to make ends meet, it could impact their harvests the following years. Money is an input of farming, just as fertilizer and machinery are, and a lack of these greatly diminishes yields.

Low yields mean less food supply and higher prices for consumers—in or out of the city.

However, if farmers diversify their income by investing in renewables, it reduces the financial hit brought on by natural disasters. This would then keep food costs stable for people in rural and urban regions alike.


Q: Will utilizing my land for renewable energy take away from the amount of crops I can generate from farming?

A: Joel Olsen, president of O2 Energies, has dedicated much of his work to installing large-scale ground-mounted solar plants on un-utilized farmland.

As someone familiar with farmers’ concerns, he understands why may are hesitant to invest in renewables. He makes sure to always ask the same question before beginning a project: How can we maximize the local impact of what we do?

Olsen knows land is the most precious resource for farmers, so setting aside valuable land for another purpose seems counterintuitive. However, he also works to ensure that the land designated for renewable energy is just as productive. Raising sheep and planting berries in conjunction with solar farms are two practices Olsen has implemented.

Through the integration of agriculture and electricity production, farmers can maintain productive farmland while investing in these technologies. Farmers don’t have to sacrifice land to invest in renewables: energy and crop production can happen simultaneously.

“Clean energy can be the perfect marriage between preserving farmland and generating electricity,” Olsen said.


The renewable energy industry is leaving the government in the dust

Panelists at the NC Clean Tech Summit Clean Energy Policies in the Southeast Panel. Left to right: Stuart Pearman, James Kerr, Brian O’Hara, Ivan Urlaub, Kendal Bowman
Panelists at the NC Clean Tech Summit Clean Energy Policies in the Southeast Panel.
Left to right: Stuart Pearman, James Kerr, Brian O’Hara, Ivan Urlaub, Kendal Bowman

The ongoing fight over climate change is one of the most polarizing political debates of our time.  ‘Pro-renewable energy Republican’ is now synonymous with ‘parachute-less skydiver.’  ‘Oil-baron Democrat’ holds a similar stigma; partisanship is now the norm.

At the end of 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly allowed the renewable energy tax credit to expire. A 2015 bill extended the credit for projects already underway, but only for one additional year. The credit, equal to 35 percent of an installation’s cost, was a major driver for the solar industry in North Carolina.

Now, the renewable energy portfolio standard, the state’s other major piece of environmental legislation, is under attack.

The portfolio standard requires electric utilities to supply 12.5 percent of electricity sales through renewable energy resources. Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility, supported the legislation, but nevertheless, it has fallen into the same battlefield that swallowed the tax credit.

“I think you can sum it all up to say that Republicans are against anything Democrats are for, and I think that Democrats are probably the same way to some degree,” said Jay Faison.

Faison, founder of the ClearPath Foundation and self-proclaimed conservative, spoke about policy issues and clean technology investment at this year’s NC Clean Tech Summit. CEO and co-founder of Generate Capital Scott Jacobs was another speaker at the summit.

Jacobs said that climate change has become “a politicized moniker, which is ridiculous.” He said, “If you went to a doctor, who—you went to tell the doctor you had some symptoms that were problematic—and that doctor, and 99 more doctors, all said the same thing to you which is, ‘Take this pill,’ would you take the pill? Or would you say, ‘I’m not going to listen to doctors’?”

Faison, Jacobs, and others raised an important point at the summit: While the government is caught up in the climate change debate, the renewable energy market is moving ahead.

Here’s why the free market is taking the reins:

Renewables are rapidly approaching, reaching, and passing grid parity

When using renewable energy costs the same as purchasing energy from the grid, the renewable has reached grid parity. In North Carolina and across the country, renewables, especially solar and wind, are approaching this milestone.

“The pace of change is more rapid in the world of resources than its ever been,” said Jacobs.

In the United States, the cost of utility scale solar on average has actually dropped to 5¢ per kilowatt hour (Duke Energy’s current rate is 9.36¢ per kilowatt hour). The cost of residential rooftop solar is higher, but not by much, and the prices are continuing to drop.

Large scale renewable installations are big enough to be profitable without subsidies

The expiration of the renewable energy tax credit “killed residential and small solar in the state,” said Joel Olsen, founder of O2 Energies.

Solar farm at Denver National Airport. Photo by NREL.

Olsen was also a panelist at the NC Clean Tech Summit this year. He said that it no longer makes economic sense to install small-scale rooftop solar systems. The timeline to recover the costs has just become too large without the tax credit.

Even having reached grid parity, building a large-scale solar farm involves huge upfront costs.  This is where the tax credit came into play, and where it will no longer help.

Regardless of the hit, however, the solar industry has survived. Olsen’s company specializes in utility-scale solar farms, which are still profitable because of their size. According to Olsen, his company only had to make slight changes to their business model to continue installing solar in NC.

Without the tax credit, it will be hard to economically justify putting solar panels on your home. Solar companies and investors, however, can still focus on large-scale solar farms, which can power hundreds of homes.

The private industry is adopting a long-term outlook

“There’s a ‘short term-ism’ in politics,” said Jacobs.  “we have people in a constant election cycle, and in that constant election cycle they are constantly raising money for those elections, those campaigns.”

Jacobs compared this cycle in politics to CEOs who are more concerned with quarterly earnings than whether or not they will still be profitable in ten or twenty years. He said that when you take a longer term outlook, renewable energy becomes a much more lucrative opportunity.

Renewable energy infrastructure involves large upfront costs.  When those costs are spread out over the lifetime of the infrastructure, they are much less daunting.

Jacobs, Faison, and others made spreading the upfront costs of renewable energy infrastructure their business.  Their investment companies pay the initial costs, allowing the investors and homeowners to pay them back over time.

New technology will make it possible for renewables to become mainstream forms of energy generation

The 20-megawatt Gemasolar concentrating solar power plant, in Fuentes de Andalucia, Spain, is the first such plant to use molten salt technology for thermal storage.
The Gemasolar power plant in Fuentes de Andalucia, Spain is the first to use molten salt technology.  Photo by Greg Glatzmaier, NREL

Energy storage technology, from molten salt towers to Tesla’s home battery systems, is opening new doors for renewable energy. Energy storage has the potential to allow renewables to constantly produce energy. This technology can allow solar to power your home at night, and wind turbines to supply electricity when the wind isn’t blowing.

Investors will continue to invest in renewable energy

Truman Semans, a panel moderator at the NC Clean Tech Summit, explained why renewable energy investment will continue.  He described to the audience a meeting he had with the Pacific Pension and Investment Group.

“A significant percentage of them did not believe in climate change, but a much greater percentage of them, when asked, said ‘Of course I’m going to take account of climate change in my investing because, whether I believe in it or not, the markets believe in it,” said Semans.