That's according to Environment North Carolina's latest study titled "Lighting the Way." The report says it's not necessarily the amount of sunlight in the state that makes it a leader but the public policies created by state and local governments to make clean energy a priority.
"North Carolina's solar capacity more than doubled in 2014, bringing the total capacity to 557 megawatts. Growth in the number of large scale "solar farms" built across the state is mostly responsible for the increase," a press release from Environment North Carolina said. However, according to their report, North Carolina lags behind other leaders in residential and commercial rooftop systems installed.
"I think it was always an accepted energy source but I think now people are realizing that it's not an experiment anymore," Ken Varner with Wilmington-based Cape Fear Solar Systems said.
Varner credits tax incentives and lower energy costs for the increase in solar energy in North Carolina. An average solar power package initially costs about $25,000, but with the rebates, consumers only end up paying about a third of that price.
"With the incentives right now, they allow a very high value product to become accessible not only to the home owner but also business owners," Varner said. "Solar energy, not only is it a good idea or a good concept, but people are also saying this is a good deal. It's in my financial interest to actually go with solar energy."
However, solar energy's impact on the environment also plays a major role in why people choose this power source.
Experts say it produces no pollution, including carbon emissions that could cause global warming. According the report, solar power produces 96 percent less global warming pollution than coal-fired power plants over its entire life-cycle and 91 percent less global warming pollution than natural gas-fired power plants.
"It does help that North Carolina, and even on the coast especially, does have a very good solar resource," Varner said. "That allows the panels, or let's say your investment, to produce more power and also then more revenue based on that."
The report also outlines a number of policies that other leading solar states follow that would help North Carolina be even more solar accepting:
- Enable third-party sales of electricity. Financing rooftop solar energy systems through third-party electricity sales significantly lowers the up-front cost of installing solar PV systems for consumers. The state should allow companies that install solar panels to sell electricity to their customers without subjecting them to the same regulations as large public utilities, such as Duke Energy.
- Improve the state's net metering laws. Net metering helps ensure that small commercial or residential customers are fairly compensated for the solar electricity that they produce. Investor-owned utilities should be required to reduce "standby fees" to encourage large commercial customers to install solar panels, and co-op and municipal utilities should be required to offer net metering to their customers.
- Defend and strengthen the state's renewable energy standard to require utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and to increase requirements for solar energy production. The state should also require all of the solar power that counts towards North Carolina's renewable energy standard to be produced within the state.