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WUNC Radio Interview

Tomorrow's Energy

Reporter Jessica Jones looks into the debate over using solar energy in North Carolina.

Over the last three years, North Carolina has seen exponential growth in the use of solar power- from a few panels on homeowners' roofs to heat hot water to large installations that produce energy and send it right back into the grid. Small business owners working in the industry believe what they're doing is good for the state and for the environment. But right now their prospects are limited.

It is strange that in a Sun Belt state like this one there aren't more solar installations. North Carolina gets less than 2 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Meanwhile states like California and Colorado are using much more locally-produced solar energy.Ivan Urlaub is with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, a non-profit group that works to increase the public's understanding of renewable energy sources. Urlaub says many people don't understand how solar energy works, but that's not the main problem.

“I don't think people's lack of understanding is as much of a barrier as our policy and regulation at the state level and how our electric utilities perceive the use of wind and solar,” Urlaub said. “That's the biggest barrier to really scaling up their use.”

Here in North Carolina, the state's Utility Commission determines how much developers get paid per hour for the electricity they generate. Sustainable energy advocates say it's too low. And utilities get to determine exactly how much electricity they buy from individual developers like Richard Harkrader– and therefore control the market. Utilities like Progress Energy say they would like to use more solar energy, but that can't happen overnight. Mike Hughes is a spokesman for Progress.

“It has to be by definition. It has to be an incremental change,” Hughes said. “Unless or until the regulatory framework changes, and there's not much momentum for the regulatory framework to change that quickly because people value 24/7 electricity reliability.”

Many utility companies are wary of expanding their use of solar energy simply because it can't be produced when the sun goes down. But renewable energy advocates say reliability isn't the problem many utilities would like consumers to believe. Right now, this state uses such a tiny amount of solar energy that it gets used up almost as soon as it's made. Other countries that do rely on larger amounts of solar simply turn to other energy sources when it's dark.

A few months ago, a representative of Progress Energy reportedly told middle-schoolers in a presentation in Chapel Hill that solar wasn't sustainable enough to use on a large scale. But children of state policymakers and local entrepreneurs were in that class, including the son of Marcus Wilhelm.

“He just came home and said, 'Daddy, if you had been at school today, you would have been very angry,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm started a company last year called SolarTech South. It sells solar panels to everyone from developers to individual homeowners. Wilhelm also belongs to the state's Energy Policy Council, a diverse group of people who advise the governor on policy matters. He regularly sits at the same table with members of the Utility Commission, Progress Energy and Duke Energy.

“I believe the only way renewables will succeed is by working with utilities,” Wilhelm said. “It's the only way we will succeed. I don't believe in painting this whole thing black or white.”

Before coming to North Carolina, Wilhelm worked for years in the publishing industry, where he had to work hard to gain consensus among many groups to help his business succeed. He says the same thing needs to happen here with solar energy. And until it does, a great source of energy will continue to be underutilized.

“We know from real measured experience of nations around the world and other states in the United States that we could increase our use of renewable energy five-fold with no problems right now, with no additional technological innovations, no new research and development. We can use what we already have out there,” Urlaub said.

Urlaub says the state could be a leader both in its use of locally-produced solar energy and in developing products and services for consumers. More renewable companies would mean more jobs for the state. But that has been slow to happen.

Click here to read the online WUNC article and listen to the interview.