Lake Norman & Mooresville

Turning the state on to solar power

A Lake Norman company is cashing in on the state's burgeoning solar power industry and bringing revenue to the Lake Norman area.

O2 Energies, a 2-year-old Cornelius firm that develops and finances solar-power projects, recently opened power plants in Newland and Mt. Airy.

In Newland, the company converted 6 acres of a 38-acre Christmas Tree Farm into a 1-megawatt solar power plant. In Mt. Airy, O2 Energies created a 1.2-megawatt solar power plant on 6 acres about 3 miles from the city's downtown.

The two plants in Newland and Mt. Airy join a number of other solar plants throughout the state, many of which O2 Energies has helped to develop.

Altogether, the company has developed about 70 solar projects. However, the new plants in Avery and Mount Airy, are the only two that O2 Energies owns.

Those two plans generate more than 3 million kilowatt hours of electricity every year, said Joel Olee Olsen, the company's managing director.

O2 Energies isn't the only Lake Norman company taking advantage of the move toward sustainable energy.

Olsen estimated that there are more than 10 local companies involved with solar-power generation, including SunEnergy1, Ingersoll Rand and Bosch.

Olsen hopes his company, which employs five people and operates out of Aquesta Bank in Cornelius, will help to drive solar development in the state in the next decade.

"We want to remain focused on solar energy and renewable energy," he said.

Residents can expect to see even more solar plants over the next few years, he said.

"The cost of solar electricity has come down so quickly that it now competes with traditional power-generation cost," said Olsen, who added that currently 0.1 percent of electricity in the state comes from solar energy.

Olsen said the company has $20 million worth of solar projects planned for next year already.

John Morrison, chief operating officer for the Raleigh-based Strata Solar, said that in the last couple of years, there's been a 75 percent reduction in the cost of solar panels.

O2 Energies hired Strata Solar as a general contractor for the Newland and Mt. Airy projects.

"We're seeing some dramatic growth and it's in all aspects of our state, from the residential rooftop market to the large-scale ground mounts," said Morrison. "Unlike our conventional energy sources, the cost of solar energy is coming down."

"Solar generates power when we consume the most power - during the day, when people are working and air conditioners are turned on. ... Solar will save ratepayers money."

State legislation is also helping to increase the use of solar energy in the state.

In 2007, the state passed Senate Bill 3, which requires utilities such as Duke Energy to use clean sources of energy for 12.5 percent of its retail electricity sale by 2021.

As an example, the plant in Newland will supply power to Mountain Electric Cooperative, which serves parts of Tennessee and western North Carolina, during hours of peak energy demand.

Such legislation that supports solar energy generation will lead to job creation throughout the state, said Olsen. And the Lake Norman area could benefit from increasing use of solar power, he said.

"While we may not be seen as progressive or sustainable as the Triangle area, the potential for the Lake Norman area to attract energy related businesses like Lime Energy, ABB, Bosch Solar, and many others will bring attention to the clean energy industry," said Olsen. "We have a ways to go, but the Lake Norman region does have the potential to be seen as an area for clean energy and sustainable innovation."

In 2010, there were 40 solar power projects with more than 12.5 megawatts of capacity throughout the state, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

There were also several smaller solar power systems throughout the state, according to the association.

Morrison and Olsen said they don't think the state's solar industry will be affected by the recent demise of the solar power company Solyndra.

Solyndra manufactured cylindrical solar panels. The innovation captured more light than flat panels, which can only take in direct sunlight.

But the company was forced into bankruptcy after a drop in silicon prices made it unable to compete with the more conventional panels. And the federal government has drawn criticism for granting a loan guarantee to the company.

"A lot of that's being driven by the politics. I think in the grand scheme of things, it's a small blip," said Morrison. "They had a particular type of technology that was outside of the mainstream. It was a good idea that didn't pan out."