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Duke Energy Renewables plans solar project in Eastern NC

Duke Energy Renewables will build a three-site solar energy project in North Carolina that its designer says will be the largest east of the Mississippi, and will sell the power to institutions in Washington, D.C.

Duke, a commercial power unit of Duke Energy, said the Capital Partners project will total 52 megawatts. George Washington University, American University and George Washington University Hospital will buy the electricity under a 20-year purchase agreement that the buyers said is the nation’s largest, by megawatt-hours, that is not with a utility.

The first 20-megawatt site will be built this year in Pasquotank County in North Carolina’s northeastern corner, said Duke Renewables President Greg Wolf.

Two other sites, to be built in 2015, will be in the same area but haven’t been announced yet. The 243,000 solar panels will cover a total of more than 500 acres, generating electricity equal to the annual use of 8,200 homes.

The project will accelerate North Carolina’s ascent toward the top of national solar rankings. The state ranked third in solar photovoltaic installations in 2013 with 335 megawatts, the Solar Energy Industries Association reported.

North Carolina’s renewable energy law, enacted in 2007, created a market for solar power. State and federal tax credits, plummeting panel prices and an experienced solar workforce then propelled the industry.

The agreement announced Tuesday lets the D.C. institutions meet their carbon-reduction goals. Once the project is completed, George Washington University will draw 86.6 million kilowatt-hours of solar power a year, American University 30 million kwh and the hospital 6.3 million kwh.

“This will greatly accelerate our progress toward the carbon neutrality target we had earlier set for 2025,” George Washington University President Steven Knapp said in a statement.

Solar power will supply more than half the electricity the universities use and one-third of the hospital’s needs. The D.C. institutions also lock in a long-term price for renewable energy, which was not revealed but which one Duke official characterized as “attractive.”

The solar farms in Eastern North Carolina will send energy through Dominion North Carolina Power, which is part of the PJM Interconnection regional transmission grid. PJM, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in 13 states and the District of Columbia, will deliver the energy.

“That gives us the most efficient way to then commercially get the power to these customers,” Wolf said.

Such a deal is not possible in North Carolina, where utilities sell electricity within assigned territories. Customers in the District of Columbia are free to choose their energy providers.

CustomerFirst Renewables of Washington, D.C., structured and helped negotiate the deal. While larger solar farms have been proposed in the Southeast, including a 100-megawatt project in Duplin County, the company said the North Carolina photovoltaic project is the largest at an advanced stage of development, with power purchase contracts in place.

Duke expects the project to employ hundreds of workers during construction.

“From our perspective as the project’s developer and owner, our message is largely the same – it creates economic development opportunities, a burst of jobs and tax base enhancement,” Wolf said.

Duke Renewables owns about 150 megawatts of solar capacity at 21 farms nationwide, including 11 in North Carolina. Its previous largest North Carolina project was the 20-megawatt Dogwood solar farm in Halifax County.

The project won’t affect regulated Duke Energy utilities’ solar-energy mandate under North Carolina law.

Duke Energy’s two regulated North Carolina utilities ranked among the nation’s top 10 utilities for new solar power capacity in 2013, the Solar Electric Power Association said.

Duke Energy Progress, which serves the eastern Carolinas and Asheville, ranked fifth-highest with 137 megawatts of solar energy. Duke Energy Carolinas, which serves Charlotte and the western Carolinas, came in 10th with 58 megawatts.

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