Sun rains profit on businesses
“Here Comes the Sun” is a favorite refrain of business and homeowners in the area who have solar energy.
While big businesses in North Carolina have been raking in thousands of dollars in renewable tax credits for utilizing the power of the sun to generate electricity, small businesses and a few homeowners in Cherokee and Clay counties also are seeing results from solar panel arrays.
N.C. Department of Revenue data shows a total of $136,289,577 in renewable tax credits were issued in 2015, a 7.6 percent increase over 2014. Most of the 2015 tax credits awarded for investing in renewable projects went to banking and insurance companies. The 23 entities receiving $1 million or more in credits were large corporations, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina receiving the most at $40,127,428.
However, locally, a number of farmers and small business owners are pleased with diversion of electric bills, direct payments for the electricity they produce or actually powering their homes with solar.
Roger Swanson of Murphy installed solar panels six to eight years ago that directly power his home. He hasn’t had an electric bill in years. He sells his excess power to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“We took a gamble on it,” he said of solar energy.
A 12-kilowatt system is mounted on Swanson’s house. It powers his house, including lights, heats water and filters water in his swimming pool.
“I maintain it. You can’t call the power company if there is a problem,” he said. “Solar produces more in the spring and fall than it does in the summer. When I got into it, most of the equipment came from Florida.
“I have often wondered why more people don’t use solar. There are many families living completely off the grid [who use solar]. They have to get the price in hand to get more people in the market.”
Swanson said he was shocked when TVA offered to buy whatever excess electricity he produces. They use Murphy Power Board’s electric lines.
Randall Shields of Hiwassee Dam struck a deal where 3-5 acres of his land has a fenced-in solar array.
“I produce electricity and get a percentage of what it produces,” he said. “It is up and down according to the sunshine. They pay taxes on what they have fenced in. I started a contract with Green States Energy and have a 40-year contract. They graded my land like they were going to build a house. They dug ditches so the rain goes into a pond. They put down a cloth layer of gravel and then started driving steel.”
Shields said Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corp. buys the electricity generated and in turn sells it to TVA. He does nothing to maintain the solar area.
“I make more money than I could growing trees. I have been satisfied with it. The only thing I do is write my name on a check once a month and deposit it,” he said.
The combined generating capacity of TVA’s solar installations is more than 300 kilowatts, according to a TVA statement. Solar power works by mounting solar panels on rooftops or integrating them into shingles or other building materials.
When sunlight hits the cells, the electrons inside gain more energy and create an electrical current. Inverters then change the direct current into the alternating current used in homes and businesses.
Temporary traffic signals on N.C. 294 construction are solar powered. Andy Russell, district engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said Adams Construction Co. is doing work on the highway. He believes the solar traffic signals have battery backup.
J.C. Owenby has property in Culberson that contains a solar array. He still farms but has about three quarters of an acre in solar.
“They pay me a little for [the power generated],” he said. “I don’t have to keep up with it.”
Martins Creek Elementary/Middle School has had an array of solar panel since 2009, Cherokee County Superintendent Jeana Conley said. The power generated is sold to Blue Ridge EMC, which sells it to TVA. The school system received a check of about $60,000 a year when the system was first installed.
A solar power company, Carolina Mountain Solar, opened in Murphy in 2013.
“Cherokee and Clay counties have an unusual number of solar incentive programs,” owner Stewart Senger said.
All of Cherokee and Clay counties are designated rural by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making solar power available for rural grants. A 30 percent uncapped federal tax credit on income taxes also is available.
“You need the right location,” Senger said. “A lot of folks have pasture, while some people opt to take down some trees. Generally, if you can produce a garden that grows well, you are a potential customer for solar.
“The programs change every year. That is what makes this a complex program. A broad range of potential return is from about 5 to 18 percent.”
Most homeowners pay $10,000-50,000 upfront, with commercial businesses paying from $10,000 up to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the size of the system. With an upfront cost of $10,000, people typically recover one-third to two-thirds through incentive programs, Senger said. It can take from five to 20 years to recoup the investment, and systems typically last 30-40 years.
Carolina Mountain Solar does both ground and roof mounting.
“A lot of our customers have invested in energy quality and independence,” Senger said. “A lot of small businesses are involved. Even if the small business is one person, it can do well with solar.”
John Scroggs, owner of Appalachian Sound in Brasstown, had a solar system installed by Carolina Mountain Solar around the first of this year. He worked with a solar company years ago and has a friend who has solar energy.
“But I didn’t know about the state tax incentives being offered,” he said. “After I paid in full, the state gave me a percentage back on my taxes. It worked out to be fair.
“The solar panels general enough electricity to pay for my electric usage and then I get extra [money]. Blue Ridge EMC buys solar energy from me, and it is sold to TVA. It ended up being about a 7 percent return.”
Scroggs has 39 solar panels, which generate 10-13 kilowatts of power.
“It is a worthwhile investment,” he said. “More people don’t use solar because they don’t know about it.”
Donna Gains is owner of High Mountain Meadow Farm & Creamery near Hayesville. Carolina Mountain Solar installed her system. Through a USDA grant, they were reimbursed 50 percent of the cost.
In addition, the business got a $1,000 reimbursement grant from Blue Ridge EMC. Her 5,000-kilowatt system has cut her power bill in half.
“It is clean energy and has been very good for us,” she said.