Author:Chis Teale          Published: 2/25/2020      Utility Dive

The city council approved a 35-megawatt project to generate 24% of its municipal electricity, and could spark trends elsewhere, according to observers.

Brandon Walker

The Charlotte, North Carolina, City Council approved a plan to buy power from a solar project that supporters say will help Charlotte meet its ambitious climate goals, and may act as a model for other cities.

Elected officials gave the 35-megawatt project their unanimous approval Monday night, signaling the go-ahead for construction of a solar farm in nearby Statesville, North Carolina. The project is expected to produce enough zero-carbon electricity to power the equivalent of 10,000 homes annually, and reach 24% of its goal to power municipal buildings with carbon-free energy by 2030.

The plan approval follows the city’s acceptance into utility Duke Energy’s Green Source Advantage (GSA) program, which helps large customers in North Carolina support the development of large, utility-scale renewable energy while meeting their sustainability goals and lowering carbon emissions.

The city partnered with the likes of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and World Resources Institute (WRI) to bring the plan to fruition, something proponents said could set off a stream of copycat projects as cities work to reach their climate goals.

“As these cities start to execute these deals, I think there’ll be a wave coming in after them in a lot of cities,” Ali Rotatori, a senior associate at RMI, told Smart Cities Dive. “A lot are realizing that it’s now 2020 and they made these goals for 2025 and 2030, and they really need to get starting on them. I see a lot of people waiting or getting their ducks in a row and watching what other cities are doing and learning from that.”

The deal makes Charlotte the most populous city in the United States to acquire large-scale solar through a green tariff like GSA, according to a WRI spokesperson. The deal is expected to create nearly 500 jobs, improve air quality and save the city $2 million over 20 years in electricity spending, the spokesperson told Smart Cities Dive in an email. Construction costs for the solar farm will be around $35 million.

Under the terms of its Strategic Energy Action Plan, approved unanimously by city council in December 2018, Charlotte committed to having all its municipal buildings and fleet get their energy from carbon free sources by 2030. The goal is part of its wider Sustainable and Resilient Charlotte by 2050 Resolution, which set a community-wide goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 2 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year.

Charlotte was also named as one of the 25 Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge winners in late 2018. Winning cities receive two years of financial and technical support, something Charlotte officials said was enormously helpful as they navigated a complex and long procurement process and request for proposals (RFP).

Cities typically are required by law to procure large-scale renewables through their state utility. But under Duke Energy’s GSA program, rather than have the utility go out and procure the renewable themselves, customers can find their own projects and bring them back for approval by Duke based on certain criteria and qualifications. Once Charlotte found the program and was accepted, the city issued an RFP looking for a solar developer to partner with.

“We had never done this type of RFP before, so our procurement folks, it was all new to them,” Heather Bolick, energy and sustainability coordinator for the City of Charlotte, told Smart Cities Dive. “It was new to our finance team; it was new to our attorney’s office. We really had to work very hard on getting all those parties on board in the beginning.”

From Duke’s point of view, the solar farm fits well with its own goals to reduce carbon emissions, and is part of a broader effort with the city that has included the two parties signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) pledging cooperation on environmental goals and collaborating on other projects like a microgrid.

For those in Statesville, where the solar farm will be located on a Duke transmission line, project leaders said there will be plenty of opportunities, too. Local solar developer Carolina Solar Energy worked on identifying the land and bringing residents on board, something they started by hosting a dinner with neighbors who live close to the location and answering their questions.

They then worked with landowners to secure leases to their property for the panels and pursuing the environmental studies, with the solar farm set to generate more income for them than a traditional farming or timber project through paying the terms of that lease. The solar farm will also pay property taxes for the land.

“Many rural landowners see solar as a unique opportunity to really optimize the value they can get from their rural property,” Carolina Solar Energy CEO Carson Harkrader told Smart Cities Dive.

Other cities have charged hard on rolling out solar programs, spurred in part by the American Cities Climate Challenge Renewables Accelerator, a joint effort launched last year between the American Cities Climate Challenge, RMI, WRI and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) to help cities generate more than 2.8 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity and decarbonize their electricity systems.

In the intervening period, Cincinnati signed a deal to build what’s been touted as the country’s largest municipal solar facility. And Philadelphia launched a new regional climate collaborative that gives local businesses, universities and other institutions training to procure clean energy. Those city-level efforts, in addition to Charlotte’s work, are going to “pave the way for other cities to follow suit,” Rotatori said.

“What I’ve learned from working with cities over the past year is that they like the help from technical experts as they call us,” she said. “But learning from each other and seeing what a city has done and being able to replicate it and ask questions is the best way for them to learn and follow, and that’s who they trust the most.”