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A Charlotte native spreads the solar gospel

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  • S.C.’s first solar farm up and running
  • Joel Olsen

    Job: Founder and president, O2 Energies.

    Graduated: UNC Chapel Hill, in international studies with a minor in Japanese.

    Lives in: Cornelius.

    Family: Wife, Tonje, three children.

    Civic work: Serves on the Community Leadership Council of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation; board member, N.C. Clean Energy Business Alliance; member, E4 Carolinas.

    Last book read: “One Second After,” a novel about a sudden attack that leaves America without electric power.

    Relaxes by: Listening to reggae music.



First in a series of seven

A native Charlottean who came home after years in Europe is riding the green-energy wave that made North Carolina the fourth-largest state for solar installations.

O2 Energies, the Cornelius firm Joel Olsen started in 2009, has completed seven commercial-scale solar farms since 2011 and has nine more underway. Olsen sees a sunny future.

“It’s not a question of if solar will become our primary source of energy,” he says, “but when.”

Duke Energy Carolinas’ latest long-range plan shows renewable energy growing to no more than 6 percent of its generating capacity by 2028. But in a nod to solar’s momentum, Duke also launched a unit this fall to build solar farms as part of its regulated businesses.

Olsen, 43, worked in Japan for two years after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill. Then it was on to Norway, where he has family roots, for 13 years.

With its vast hydroelectric resources, Norway is one of the few nations to produce virtually all its electricity from renewable energy. Other European countries, notably Germany, were investing heavily in solar and wind energy.

Olsen started thinking about bringing emerging solar technology home to North Carolina, which has far higher solar potential than Germany, and did in 2008.

North Carolina legislators had just become the first in the Southeast to make utilities derive some of their electricity from solar, wind and organic wastes. The law created an opening for private solar developers.

O2 Energies struggled for a couple of years, in a slow economy, to develop a financing model and find partners to build its ground-based solar systems. Its niche became corporate investors, who reap state and federal renewable-energy tax credits while harvesting returns on local projects.

All O2 solar farms have been built in rural places and small towns. The projects create construction jobs for three to nine months and boost tax bases while demanding little public services in return.

“A lot of our rural areas have really struggled since the tobacco subsidies and textiles have left, and what you find in these areas are people who are really trying to make it easy to do business,” Olsen said. “You find a lot more involvement, from the mayor to the county commission, to try to bring the future to their towns.”

O2’s first solar farm, built on surplus land at Mount Airy’s sewage treatment plant, was the largest investment there in 2011. The city of 10,000, hometown of the late actor Andy Griffith, is 90 miles north of Charlotte.

“It was about a $6 million injection of activity over a period of about six months. You notice that,” said Martin Collins, the city’s community development manager. Stores, restaurants and motels grew busier.

O2 built a second solar farm a mile away in 2012.

Renewable energy has become a marketing tool for the city, Collins said, one that “says a little something about our intention to compete in this new environment.”

O2 itself has 10 employees, hiring local contractors to build its installations. The company works to build community ties, including local schools, and leaves workers with training they can use on other solar projects.

Olsen credits North Carolina’s solar success to transparent standards on connections between renewable energy projects and utilities, the investment tax credit and plunging costs.

Solar panels sell for half their price of four years ago. Installation costs have also dropped, he said, as a trained workforce grew and suppliers and bankers became solar-savvy.

“We’re selling power to the grid at less than the price of retail” electric rates, Olsen said. “Solar is not increasing the cost of power. If anything it’s stabilizing, and long-term we believe it will reduce the cost of power in the state.”

(This article was modified on Dec. 27 to update O2’s number of projects.)

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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