Working with the Sun

How solar power can protect North Carolina's environment and create new jobs

Solar power can curb pollution, protecting public health and North Carolina’s environment. It can also drive North Carolina’s economy forward – creating jobs that can’t be outsourced, and launching new companies to manufacture and install solar power equipment.


Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center

Solar power can curb pollution, protecting public health and North Carolina’s environment. It can also drive North Carolina’s economy forward – creating jobs that can’t be outsourced, and launching new companies to manufacture and install solar power equipment.

This report quantifies the benefits of developing North Carolina’s solar resources on a trajectory to supply 14 percent of the state’s electricity consumption by the year 2030. Achieving this benchmark would prevent the emission of millions of tons of pollution that contributes to global warming and respiratory health problems, save billions of gallons of water, and create more than 35,000 good-paying jobs.

To realize these benefits, North Carolina should nurture and expand demand for solar energy while helping to incubate local solar businesses.

Solar energy prevents pollution, protecting public health and North Carolina’s environment.

By reducing the need for electricity that otherwise would have come from fossil fuels, solar power prevents pollution. In the year 2030, if solar energy supplied 14 percent of North Carolina’s electricity supply:

  • It would prevent 10 million metric tons of global warming carbon dioxide pollution – the same amount as produced by 680,000 cars and trucks in a year.
  • It would prevent 17 million pounds of smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, helping to meet health-based air pollution standards across the state, including in the Charlotte, Triangle, Triad, Fayetteville, Hickory, Asheville and Rocky Mount metropolitan areas.
  • It would prevent more than 400 pounds of highly toxic mercury pollution. This amount is significant – just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can make the fish in a 25-acre lake unsafe to eat.
  • All of the figures cited here include the benefits of solar panels that will be installed to comply with the state’s existing renewable electricity standard.

Solar energy reduces the need for water for power generation.

  • By 2030, solar energy would help North Carolina save 5 billion gallons of water per year that would have otherwise been consumed for steam and cooling in fossil-fired and nuclear power plants.
  • That amount of water could supply the household needs of a city a little larger than Durham or Winston-Salem (about 200,000 people).

Investments in solar energy are already benefiting North Carolina’s economy.

  • Green electric power businesses in North Carolina – including solar, wind, biomass and energy efficiency – employed more than 10,000 workers as of 2009, generating more than $3.5 billion in revenue annually. For the year beginning July 2008, clean energy firms increased their workforce by 6 percent, despite the damaging impact of the credit crisis and the recession. These clean energy firms are expected to grow another 36 percent through July 2010.
  • North Carolina is already home to more than 100 businesses that manufacture, install, or market solar energy systems. For example, Charlotte-based Sencera manufactures thin-film transistors and integrated circuits for solar photovoltaic panels. The company is now building a thin-film solar panel manufacturing plant, which will employ 65 workers by summer 2010. Durham-based Carolina Solar Energy installed a 650 kilowatt (kW) solar park at the Person County Business and Industrial Center next to U.S. Highway 501 south of Roxboro in 2009. The facility is one of the state’s largest and most visible solar installations. And Vanir Energy, based in Fletcher, designed, built and operates the world’s largest solar thermal heating and cooling system at the Fletcher Business Park, creating 58 jobs.
  • According to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, nearly 300 firms in the state have the technical potential to manufacture solar energy system components. As of 2008, these businesses employed more than 16,000 people.

Expanding North Carolina’s solar industry will create jobs and help drive the state economy forward.

  • Building enough solar panels to generate 14 percent of North Carolina’s electricity would create an estimated 35,000 full-time equivalent jobs in North Carolina in 2030.
  • These jobs would pay workers $1.6 billion in wages in that year, or an average of $45,000 annually (in 2010 dollars).
  • Growing at this pace, the solar industry would drive total gross investment in North Carolina of nearly $4 billion annually by 2030 (in 2010 dollars).

These estimates assume that 25 percent of solar manufacturing activity would happen locally, based on a North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association survey of existing clean energy businesses in the state. More or less in-state manufacturing would affect the magnitude of the economic benefits.

North Carolina should develop its solar energy resources to help put the state on sound footing for the future. The state should:

  • Help businesses and individuals finance solar power installations by enabling buyers to pay for their investment over time in property tax assessments.
  • Adopt feed-in rates that set fair and predictable prices for solar electricity produced.
  • Allow solar companies to lease solar power systems to home and business owners, enabling them to use solar power without paying the upfront costs.
  • Ensure that net metering policies fairly compensate home and business owners for electricity produced by solar panels.
  • Require solar power to be included or provided as an option on new houses.
  • Require all of the solar power that counts towards North Carolina’s renewable electricity standard to be produced in state.