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Strata Solar plans massive solar farm

John Downey

Senior Staff Writer – Charlotte 

Strata Solar has proposed building a 20-megawatt solar farm in Chatham County that’s designed to sell power to a North Carolina utility at a profit.

It will be an important step forward for the state’s solar industry, if Strata can pull it off.

The project will be the size of the massive solar farm proposed by Apple Inc. at its data center in Maiden. But that farm is designed primarily to provide power for the data center, not as a venture to make money from the sale of electricity.

Markus Wilhelm, founder of the three-year-old solar company based in Chapel Hill, has no doubts about Strata’s ability to build the project. And he expects to have as many as four additional solar installations of that size in the works elsewhere by the end of the year.

The Chatham Park Solar Farm will be part of a 7,000-acre mixed-use development proposed in Chatham County by Preston Development. The land has been purchased during the last several years by Chatham Park Investors. That is a limited liability company involving Preston’s owners and top executives at software company SAS Institute    Inc.

Jim Goodnight, chief executive of SAS, is one of the principal investors, the Triangle Business Journal reports.

Plans call for Strata to lease the property and operate the farm.

Philip Culpepper, Preston’s consulting planner for Chatham Park, says the developer believes a large solar project will set the right tone for a project that some in the region have referred to as Research Triangle Park 2.0.

“We are looking at attracting people from across the world with Chatham Park,” he says. “If you have a company looking at you from Germany, for instance, and solar is not a part of your project, they wonder why not.”

The solar farm also allows Chatham Park to bring in some revenue while its development contracts are being negotiated. Strata will get all the proceeds from the sale of the power.

“It helps to pay the taxes and is a good marketing point for the development,” Culpepper says. For the long run, he adds, Preston also wants to establish a continuing relationship with Strata for future solar projects in the development.

“We have looked at some companies that would be interested in having solar on their roof or as part of their property for their own use,” he says. “We want that relationship with Strata to help with solar orientation and the construction of future projects as requested.”

Randy Perkins, a lawyer specializing in power-project development at Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte, says the Chatham venture could be an important development of the state industry. He says the low prices offered by N.C. power companies for large renewable projects have so far generally put them out of reach for solar developers because financing is unavailable at those prices.

That is why the sale of renewable-energy credits has been key. Those credits essentially raise the price the developer is paid for the power. But the N.C. market for the credits has all but dried up.

Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, says if the Chatham farm can be built without a reliance on those credits, it would mean the state’s solar industry is moving toward being self-sustaining.

Wilhelm, the Strata founder, and John Morrissey, the company’s chief operating officer, say the project can move forward without the sale of credits and still meet the margins they need to obtain financing for the project.

Strata is negotiating to sell the power to the N.C. Electric Membership Corp. The deal isn’t yet final, but the utility confirms it is interested.

Strata isn’t disclosing its expected price tag on the project, withholding that as proprietary information. But the installed costs of solar generally run less than $5,000 per kilowatt. Strata is building several 5-megawatt solar farms, and it has estimated that each will cost about $22.5 million to build.

Extrapolating from that, a 20-megawatt farm would cost in the range of $100 million, although economies of scale are likely to bring down the price.

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