Solar farm at SAS grows megawatts and well-fed sheep

Across N.C., projects built with tax credits are tapping the sun's power

Staff WritersOctober 11, 2010 

— A major expansion of the solar energy farm at SAS's sprawling campus is among the projects taking solar power to new levels in this state.

But the 12-acre facility in Cary, among the largest solar farms in North Carolina, will soon be eclipsed in size by more ambitious projects.

Already, solar power has become the state's leading source of renewable energy as companies large and small line up to take advantage of lucrative state and federal incentives that virtually guarantee a profit.

Businesses as diverse as Glaxo Smith Kline, the Mayfair Plaza Shopping Center in Cary and OFM, a furniture import company in Holly Springs, have built solar plants on rooftops and in empty fields.

In addition to being a good environmental move, building such solar farms is a sound business strategy, allowing the companies to bask in a "green" aura even as they reap financial rewards.

The declining cost of solar technology even made the price of what SAS calls Solar Farm 2 less than the original project even as it generates 20 percent more electricity. The company invested $5.5 million in the expansion, according to documents filed with the state Utilities Commission.

"We've had a lot of momentum with our environmental program," said Jerry Williams, SAS' environmental sustainability program manager.

"It's contagious," Williams said. "The response we had, both internally and externally, was a validation that this is a great thing to do."

Together the two SAS installations feature more than 10,000 solar panels fanned across 12 acres. Their combined 2.2 megawatt capacity will generate enough electricity to power 325 average homes. A typical home uses about 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a month.

The solar market

SAS' solar effort is one of about a dozen commercial-scale projects in the state and is one of the larger ones, said James McLawhorn, director of the electric division at the Public Staff, the state agency that represents the public in utility cases.

The biggest solar farm operating in the state today is a 3.5 megawatt facility in Davidson County that sells power to Duke Energy. Plans call for expanding that solar farm to 15.5 megawatts by the end of 2010 or early 2011.

SAS sells the electricity it generates to Progress Energy, which in turn puts the power on the grid for its customers.

Progress also pays a premium - known as a renewable energy certificate - for electricity generated by Solar Farm 1 to help meet its state-required mandate to support green energy. However, SAS is not selling the certificates from Solar Farm 2 to Progress.

Instead, SAS is selling them to Washington-based Sol Systems because it got a better price from Sol, which has created a market for these certificates by buying and reselling them.

Sol's scale and access to markets beyond North Carolina enable it to sometimes pay higher prices than utilities, CEO Yuri Horwitz said.

On the SAS campus

SAS' initial solar farm, which was completed in 2008, was triggered by an internal analysis of how environmentally responsible the company was - and how it could do more.

"The solar farm seemed a natural fit for the culture we have at SAS," Williams said.

SAS makes business intelligence and analytics software that allows companies to analyze their work and predict trends. Its product line includes SAS for Sustainability Management, which helps companies and other organizations analyze and manage their effect on the environment.

Other energy-conscious SAS initiatives on the SAS campus include solar-powered hot water systems and two still-under-construction buildings that are aiming for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Those buildings are a $70 million cloud computing center and a 280,000-square-foot executive briefing center.

"There aren't a lot of companies doing these kinds of innovative approaches to clean energy," said Gaelan Brown, vice president of marketing at groSolar, a Vermont company that designed SAS' second solar farm.

Companies that do take the plunge tend to work with a third party that actually owns and operates the system in order to avoid the upfront costs, Brown said. By eliminating the middle man, SAS will reap greater financial benefits.

SAS anticipates it will earn back its investment on each of its two solar farms after about 10 years of operation, Williams said.

"If you do the homework, you can find ways to make projects like this work," he said.

Williams isn't ruling out a third solar farm but said SAS isn't ready to cross that bridge yet.

Where sheep graze

SAS' two solar farms also feature more than a dozen sheep that keep the grass and other vegetation from overshadowing the solar panels.

"They are doing what they do naturally - that's eat grass," Williams said. "If you look at the [solar panels], it's difficult to get equipment in between and mow. It was a natural choice."

Fortunately, sheep dung is a natural fertilizer that SAS employees normally don't have to mess with. For special occasions - such as last year, when Gov. Bev Perdue used the SAS solar farm as the background for her announcement of a new energy reform package - a leaf blower is all that's needed to clean up this clean-energy farm.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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